Jan 28, 2014
08:20 PM
Connecticut Politics

Obama's Word Choice Measured in State of the Union

Obama's Word Choice Measured in State of the Union

Political pundits expected President Barack Obama to lay out a strong argument in Tuesday’s State of the Union Speech for reversing the growing income inequality in the U.S.

Overall, the president did not disappoint: he addressed the problems facing low income Americans and asked for an increase to the minimum wage.

But his word choice was as careful as some observers in the hours leading up to the State of the Union speech had warned.

Obama only mentioned "poverty" three times and said "poor" once in his speech. Compare that with the 40 times President Lyndon Johnson said the words poverty and poor in his famous War on Poverty speech. The minimum wage, which Obama wants to raise, was mentioned three times.

The speech, like most State of the Union addresses was measured, in terms of addressing income inequality and poverty.

“In our country, and given the record of the war on poverty, it’s not the most politically advantageous theme in the State of the Union address,” said Gary Rose, the Chairman of the Department of Government and Politics at Sacred Heart University.  “I would suggest that a lot of people see that theme (poverty) as pie in the sky. There seemed to be a purposeful and very conscious attempt to downplay that.”

Obama never said “income inequality” during Tuesday’s speech. He did use the phrase “ladders of inequality,” which appeared to be planned. The Associated Press reported Monday the President’s plan to substitute “income inequality” with “ladders of inequality.”

“There was clearly the use of euphemisms to describe what previous generations would have done with plain language,” said Richard Hanley, Director of the Graduate Program in Journalism at Quinnipiac University.

Conversely, Obama made 12 mentions of "opportunity" in the adress. "Jobs," often a theme of State of the Union addresses was mentioned 23 times.

Obama’s speech is indicative of the declining use of the words poverty and poor during the last three decades.

Hanley plugged in the words poverty stricken and poor into Google Ngram, an open source program that tracks word use in magazines, newspaper and books.

“The use of word poverty stricken and poor in books, newspapers and magazines peaked in the 1930s; it peaked again in the 1960s, and then falls off the 1980s,” Hanley said.

Americans have changed their view on poverty, which is reflected in the language.

“We don’t like the use the word poor, it has almost an antique sound to it,” Hanley said. “It’s striking that the words poverty and poor are not in use because those are the words that describe the conditions of millions of Americans.” 

Click here for a link to the President's full remarks.

Below is a word cloud which illustrates the most prominent words in the address. 


Wordle:  2014 State of the Union

Obama's Word Choice Measured in State of the Union

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