Donald Trump’s odd discourse markers

Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign for the US presidency will provide countless writers and academics — linguists, sociologists, political scientists, journalistic ethicists — with material for years to come. Mark Liberman on Language Log, of course, has been digging into Mr. Trump’s speech, the most obvious feature of which is its repetitive quality. In Trump’s first debate performance, this trait led to what could be called a certain sponginess of his discourse: even though he said more words (“tokens”) than Ms. Clinton, he actually employed fewer unique words (“types”). If we simplistically equate a distinct word with a concept, his delivery was less dense, less concise, than what Clinton had to say.

What I’m finding interesting are some of the expressions he keeps repeating, which seem convey a judgement or attitude, somewhat like a discourse marker in the shape of a cliché. For example, in his first debate he used the word “unbelievable” four times, and always with the same connotation: Twice modifying “company”, and once as an adverb in the description of his company’s employees (“unbelievably happy”), boasting about the organization he runs; and once (“It’s unbelievable.”) when bragging about his young son’s computer skills.

Others are “believe me”, as mocked by Tim Kaine — a marker of deflection for statements that won’t stand up to scruitiny? — and the one that I want to talk about here: “not even close”. It was in Trump’s first reaction to the 2005 tape containing his disastrous gloating about how he, as a rich celebrity, gets to assault women on a whim. (The excellent Sorrywatch blog has a full discussion of his calamitous attempts at a justification.) Here’s the text:

This was locker room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago. Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course – not even close. I apologize if anyone was offended.

Obviously, neither the sexual transgressions nor any hypothetical lewd remarks (or worse) of the Democratic candidate’s husband are in any way germane to the situation at hand. (Though I should point out that what Trump verifiably said is not in actual fact less serious than what has been alleged about Mr. Clinton’s behaviour).

But what is the role of that “not even close” qualifier? I believe Trump uses it a lot, but have no time to do any kind of exhaustive search. Here are some examples:

  • “The conditions facing real estate developers in that early-’90s period were almost as bad as the Great Depression of 1929 and far worse than the Great Recession of 2008 — not even close,” he said. (source)
  • (The model) Heidi Klum “is not even close to a 10” (source)
  • He also criticized a recent decision by the Obama administration to pay Iran $400 million in cash, calling Iran the “top funder of terror. It’s not even close.” (source)
  • Fed Chair Janet Yellen and central bank policymakers are very political, and Yellen should be “ashamed” of what she’s doing to the country, Trump said, adding the Fed is not even close to being independent. (source)
  • Even after the White House released Obama’s birth certificate, Trump told then-NBC Today host Meredith Vieira, “a birth certificate is not even close. A certificate of live birth is not even signed by anybody. I read it. It doesn’t have a serial number. It doesn’t have a signature. (source)

These are pretty much the first Google hits I got for examples of “not even close” being pronounced by Trump, except for the most recent one above. There’s something these examples have in common. I very much doubt that the early 90s economic conditions were as severe as the 2008 recession or the great depression, except in the most specialized, contrived sense; however one may “rank” Heidi Klum, she’s a successful businesswoman after being a successful model; Iran is nowhere near the top of terrorism funders; for all its failings, the Federal Reserve actually has quite reasonable safeguards to ensure independence at least from the presidential election cycle; and Obama’s birth certificate can of course be assumed to be genuine. And

So what function does the formulaic “not even close” have? Maybe, I suggest, its role is that of a marker of untruth.

Edit: I initially interpreted the 10 as a clothing size (as I’ve seen), but it is likely to refer to some sort of arbitrary ranking (of women by men). I changed that point.

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