Date: Tue, 13 Dec 1994 09:44:40 -0600


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

he promised.

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]

Department of English 217-333-2392

University of Illinois fax: 217-333-4321

608 South Wright Street

Urbana, Illinois 61801