Words don't lie: semantic mapping of presidential candidates shows what's really on their minds

Dennis Baron debaron at illinois.edu
Sun Sep 28 05:56:45 UTC 2008

There's a new post on the Web of Language:

Words don't lie: semantic mapping of presidential candidates shows  
what's really on their minds

With the global economy imploding and the United States mired in two  
wars of attrition, the presidential candidates met for their first  
debate Sept. 26 at the University of Mississippi. By counting their  
words we can create a semantic map for each candidate, a map which  
shows just how skillfully Sens. McCain and Obama skirted these  
pressing issues.

The most frequent words out of John McCain's mouth were "Senator  
Obama," which he said a total of 45 times according to the Washington  
Post's tag cloud analysis. Sen. Obama's favorite word was "going" (55  
occurrences; the Post didn't count words like the and is, focusing  
instead on more substantive substantives and more verbal verbs).

According to MSNBC, Obama said Al Qaida about twice as often as  
McCain, but not enough to stir the needle on the Post's tag cloud  
counter, and while Obama said billion some 22 times, McCain mentioned  
no big dollar amounts, confirming his belief that if you have to ask  
what something costs, then you can't afford it. Neither candidate  
mentioned subprime mortgage. They can afford not mentioning it,  
because their homes are paid for.

Of course partisan readers will bend even a tag cloud to fit their  
preconceived notions of what was said. For example, Democratic pundits  
concluded that the frequency of going showed Obama to be a man of  
action, while McCain's rehearsal of his opponent's name indicated that  
the aging senator had to constantly remind himself who he was talking  
to. But Republicans found just the opposite, spinning McCain as a  
pragmatist rooted firmly in the present while Obama was off wool  
gathering about the future.

McCain said Senator Obama more often than he said Iraq (17 times),  
Afghanistan (11), and troops(also 11). And McCain, who just turned 72  
this week, found more ways to say, "I'm really an old guy" than his  
handlers might have liked. On the other hand, Obama said years 21  
times, a thinly-veiled attempt to convince voters that he is actually  
old enough to be president . . . .

read the rest of this post on the Web of Language

Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321


read the Web of Language:

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