The Evolution of Language (Americopolitik Mix)

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA)

Three paragraphs. Actually, the rest of Betsy Woodruff’s article for Slate would be hilarious as long as we account for the modifier, “morbidly”.

If there is one issue that will creep into everything that happens on Capitol Hill right now, it is immigration. Whether you’re interested in spending, national security, the next attorney general, or the 2016 presidential contest, immigration will be deeply involved. And where there’s talk of immigration, there’s talk of amnesty. When Republicans use that term—and, for the most part, only Republicans use it—the word is typically shorthand for “bad immigration policy.” Asking if a Republican supports amnesty is akin to asking if someone is beating his or her spouse; it’s a loaded term, and the correct answer is always no. For conservatives, amnesty is bad. Nobody likes amnesty.

But there’s a hitch: Some of the top legislators who frequently use the term can’t actually explain what amnesty is. I spent the past few days asking Republican senators what they meant when they referred to amnesty in terms of immigration policy. The answers I got were intriguing. That’s because while Republican congressional leaders are always eager to discuss their opposition to this vague, amorphous concept, many of them are downright befuddled when asked to explain what that concept looks like in real life. Their responses ranged from straightforward to nonsensical.

When I asked Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, what specific immigration policies he was referring to when he used the term amnesty, he said, “I don’t understand the question.”

It is a vaudeville routine: What do you mean what do I mean?

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) might win the prize, though: “I think trying to talk about specific definitions that happen in a framework where nothing is working to conclusion is just not a very good way to spend time.”

‘Twas Steve Benen who called Woodruff’s article “hilarious”, and we need not quibble over definitions. But it is also something akin to the laugh erupting at some godawful video, where the slapstick value is enormous until you start accounting for the fact that someone was just seriously hurt. Or maybe it’s more like American football, where we cheer the hits and wait until the players are dying old men before we mourn the damage.

In his inimitable style, Benen notes:

I don’t mean to sound picky, but the basic argument here is simple.

First, lawmakers shouldn’t use words if they don’t know what the words mean. Second, politicians shouldn’t change the meaning of words just because they feel like it.

This goes far beyond “amnesty.” The word “socialism” no longer means anything – Republicans decided it was a synonym for “liberal.” “Judicial activism” has been stripped of its definition. So has “court packing” and “socialized medicine.”

These used to be perfectly good words with perfectly clear meanings, right up until political figures decided entirely new, made-up definitions helped “raise the consciousness of the average voter.”

Part of the problem is the fact that Republicans don’t seem to know the meaning of the words they use, but the larger concern is that they just don’t seem to care. I half expect GOP lawmakers to respond to future questions about words they’re misusing by saying, “I’m not an etymologist.”

He left “vote fraud” off the list, but who’s counting? Or, perhaps, who can be bothered to count? Vapid redefinition is a political specialty, and Republicans control the market. Remember, Republicans are the folks whose hatred of President Obama is so concentrated that they denounced Bob Dole as a Nazi.

Still, though, Republicans have proven the point: This is what sells. We need only look back a couple weeks to see the proof.


Woodruff, Betsy. “What Do Republicans Mean When They Say Amnesty?” Slate. 18 November 2014.

Benen, Steve. “Republicans, ‘amnesty’, and the point at which words lose meaning”. msnbc. 19 November 2014.

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