Date: Tue, 13 Dec 1994 09:44:40 -0600
From: debaron[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]UIUC.EDU
Subject: best word of 1994
I won't be at the New Words session at the ADS meeting, but I would like to
put in my nomination. It's the phrase I picked for my annual "best words
of the year" commentary on our local public radio station.
It's time for me to name the best word of the year. To cut the suspense
short, the winner for 1994 is "the contract with America."
The best word of 1993 was Vice President Al Gore's "information
superhighway," which is actually two words that traveled with an entourage
of metaphors: on ramps, off ramps, rest stops, toll booths, gridlock and
road kill. Now, a year later, it looks like the information superhighway
took us for a ride. For one thing, Vice President Gore relabeled it the
National Information Infrastructure, a name that should have died in
committee. For another, I'm still waiting for the 500 cable channels that
This year, it's the Republicans' turn to make empty promises. Their
contribution is "the contract with America," a phrase that's been on
everyone's lips since the Republicans took control of the Congress. Soon
the contract with America will be a book, and after that, a TV miniseries.
But it won't generate a lot of metaphors. Even Republicans can't wring
poetry out of a bunch of "whereases" and "dinguses in rei."
The contract with America seeks to change the direction of our society
in fundamental ways- ways I find appalling. I'm not sure I like it as word
of the year, either. But so many people are using it that it won that
contest fair and square. It may be a momentous phrase as well as a popular
one, but as a piece of language it falls flat. It is not the Great Society
or the New Deal, products of Democratic phrase makers. Maybe those words
didn't always work, but at least they were poetic. You could conjure with
them, or play poker. It is not even the information superhighway.
What words have the Republican linguists coined? They brought us the
Great Depression; they assured us they weren't crooks; they misspelled
"potato"; and now they're offering us a contract. The earth did not move
when they wrote this one.
The Republican spin doctors realize that the contract with America
sounds a little stuffy, so they have given it a pet name. They call it
"the contract" for short. But "contract" just isn't a cuddly word.
Contracts suggest tough guys in bad suits sitting around picking calamari
out of their teeth and reminiscing about Jimmy Hoffa. Also, contracts
imply lawyers. And when lawyers are involved, things tend to get
But at least the contract with America represents the Republicans'
true position. They have replaced family values, a slogan that didn't get
them very far, with contractual obligations, which is what they meant by
family values all along. Contracts mean everything to Republicans. They
converse in contracts. They write in fine print. They own the factories
that make all the dots on the dotted lines. They eat contracts for
In the contract with America, the Republicans are the parties of the
first part, hereinafter known in paragraph one, subsection b, obfuscation
34, as the owners of all the marbles, with all the rights and privileges
thereunto appertaining. The Democrats have now become the party of the
second part, hereinafter those who have lost all of their marbles.
The Republicans contend that the contract with America binds them to
terms dictated by the electorate. But in my experience, people who talk
compulsively about their contract all the time are not the ones who are
bound by it. They are the ones who want to enforce it. The contract with
America has been handed down, not hammered out. Its authors want to hold
the rest of us to its terms. They want our marbles too.
The contract with America may be the word of the year, but I'm still
not ready to sign. My lawyer friends assure me that a contract is only as
good as the people who draw it up, so there's some hope that it won't get
far. And even if the contract remains in force this time next year, its
provision for term limits will ensure that we won't have to pick it as the
best word for 1995.
Dennis Baron debaron[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]uiuc.edu
Department of English 217-333-2392
University of Illinois fax: 217-333-4321
608 South Wright Street
Urbana, Illinois 61801