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Wading through the '-crats' this election cycle

We imagine there are folks who watch the presidential debates to carefully consider the candidates' stands on free trade and job creation and health care reform.

We watch them to carefully consider how the candidates use language. If a John McCain-esque "that one" or a Barack Obama-esque "likable enough" (or an Ann Romney-esque "you people," for that matter) pops up, we want to see it in real time.

Tonight's debate, the first of three Obama-Romney matchups, is sure to offer at least one memorable line. And while we're waiting for it, we can pass the time by counting the "Looks."

"Look," is to both Obama and Romney what "literally" is to Vice President Joe Biden. (Biden's nine "literallys" during the Democratic National Convention prompted a Twitter mock-a-thon, which prompted Obama's camp to purchase an ad that popped up every time a Twitter user searches for the word "literally." The ad prompts a tweet from Obama that quotes Biden's line, "Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive.")

But back to "look." Both candidates like to start their answers with it. Heck, all politicians like to. It strikes us as a little condescending.

But, look, what do we know? Not as much as author and corporate consultant Jay Heinrichs, who coaches people on how to speak more persuasively.

"'Look' can act as a mini-preface for what you're about to say," says Heinrichs. "It says, 'I'm about to say something.'"

It often sounds a little exasperated, though.

"Context is everything," says Heinrichs. "When you're about to say something frank, 'Look" can mean, 'I'm about to say something frank.' If the audience seems frustrated, 'Look' can sound much less infuriating than 'Calm down.'

"'Look' often acts as a modal particle, an uninflected word that conveys more mood than meaning," he says. "'Doch' in German, or 'already' in colloquial English, work the same way. (All right already!) 'Look' can have the same syntactical purpose as 'like' among people under 30; as in, 'Like, the same thing happened to me.' It's a way of preparing the audience for what you're about to say. Elegant? No. Annoying? Usually."

It could be worse, he argues.

"A politician might use it to sound reasonable, implying, 'If we could see things without all the spin…'" he says. "Obama, for instance, uses 'Look' instead of the Nixonian 'Let me make something perfectly clear.' Yes, saying 'Look' to reporters at a press conference can sound condescending. But voters often like when politicians talk down to the press."

Still, he admits, it's a little flabby.

"I prefer words to have meaning when possible," says Heinrichs. "'Look' only works for me when it actually points out something YouTubable, like a funny cat or a celebrity. Or a celebrity cat. In short, when something really is worth a look."

Speaking of things that are worth a look, a Words Work reader recently alerted us to a Los Angeles Times story that mentioned the Democrats hope of painting Romney as "an unfeeling, uncaring plutocrat."

"So many 'crats,'" she wrote. "Aristocrat, bureaucrat, autocrat. So much confusion—at least for me!"

Excellent point! What gives? We checked in with Kory Stamper, associate editor at Merriam Webster and our favorite source for all things etymological.

"The suffix '-crat' is ultimately tied to the suffix -cracy, which goes back to the Greek kratos, meaning power or strength. '-Crat' originally referred to an advocate of a particular theory of government but broadened very soon after its first uses to refer to anyone within a particular (and usually powerful) group. It's not got the most positive connotation: maybe because one of the best known –crats' we run into is the bureaucrat."

It's the same -crat that ends Democrat, Stamper says.

"We don't have an analogous use of '-crat' with 'republic (the root of Republican) because 'republicrat' is no doubt more difficult to say than Republican. But before either party starts lobbing accusations, we should mention that this state of affairs is the fault of the French: Both Democrat and Republican are borrowed from or heavily influenced by the French words républicain and démocrate."

And "–crat" has wormed its way into a few other arenas as well.

"'-Crat' doesn't appear in as many coinages as you would think, but we do see it show up in interesting constructions," says Stamper. "We have evidence in our files for words like 'virtuecrat,' a member of a group that sees itself as a culture's moral compass; 'infocrat,' to refer to a system made up of confusing and incompatible software modules; and 'pornocrat,' used of Larry Flynt."

hstevens@tribune.com

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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