“That’s a Bunch of Stuff”: The Words and Style of the VP Debate


On Thursday, October 11, the first and only vice presidential debate leading up to the 2012 election occurred at Centre College in Kentucky. Vice President Joe Biden and Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan faced off over questions about campaigning, personal character, abortion, national security, and the economy. Moderated by ABC’s Martha Raddatz, the debate covered ten strong questions with precise follow up questions. The questions were not pre-announced and both candidates were prepared, ready for anything Raddatz threw at them. The full transcript of the debate has been recorded by the Washington Post and The Airspace combed through it to look at the language and style each candidate provided.


The Words

Malarkey: Used three times by Vice President Biden. The etymology of the word is rather vague. In the debate, Biden hinted at the word’s Irish upbringing (“We Irish call it malarkey”) and at one point made it synonymous with the phrase “that’s a bunch of stuff.” The Oxford English Dictionary isn’t any more clear about the origin of the word citing a stretched association with the Irish surname Mullarkey. In 1924 it was used in the Indiana Evening Gazette (that’s Indiana, Pennsylvania) in the following sentence: “The rest of the chatter is so much malarkey, according to a tip so straight that it can be passed thru a peashooter without touching the sides.” This hints at the modern understanding of the word, namely nonsense; a palaver, racket; lies; misleading words; or bullshit. Biden was using old American slang to essentially call his opponent a liar.

Notable synonyms for malarkey from Merriam-Webster include applesauce balderdash, baloney, beans [Paul Ryan's kid, anyone?], bilge, blah (also blah-blah), blarney, blather, blatherskite, blither, bosh, bull, bunk, bunkum , claptrap, codswallop, crapola, crock, drivel, fiddle-faddle, flapdoodle, folly, foolishness, fudge, garbage, guff, hogwash, hokeypokey, hokum, hoodoo, hooey, horsefeathers, humbug, humbuggery, jazz, moonshine, muck, nerts, piffle, poppycock, slush, taradiddle, tommyrot, tosh, trash, trumpery, and twaddle

My Friend: Used fifteen times by Vice President Biden. Biden kept using the term in a way that meant anything but friend. The first usage occurred when Biden said with complete apprehension for Ryan’s statement on America’s perceived weakness among foreign nations. “I don’t understand what my friend’s talking about here,” said Biden in response. Perhaps it goes back to the “poison your enemies with kindness” sentiment because each time Biden said “my friend,” his inflection and tone seemed to suggest other words like “jerkface,” “this loathsome fellow,” or more directly “my opponent.” This usage follows a history of civility in proper discourse. Addressing an opponent as friend creates an illusion of decorum while suggesting mutual respect, i.e. “we would be good friends if these issues weren’t between us.”

Tax or “taxes” was said a total of 83 times between the two candidates.

Women was only said once in reference to women’s issues. It was said a total of three times throughout the debate, the first two times in the format “men and women.” “Woman” was said zero times.

Budget was referenced thirteen times throughout the debate between the candidates.

Debt was used nine times throughout the debate five times by Ryan in the format “debt crisis.” It was used additionally once when Ryan said of American veterans, “we owe them a debt of gratitude.”

Abortion was said eight times by the candidates, three times by Raddatz. This is particularly interesting in comparison to the fact “women” was only said once.

Middle class was said 23 times between the candidates. Almost all instances painted the middle class as a group that was hurting or suffering and action to restore it, reëmpower i, or fight for what it believes in.

Afghan and “Afghanistan” was said 17 times between the candidates and 6 times by Raddatz.

War was said 26 times between the two candidates. In reference to the Iraq, Afghanistan, and the looming possibility of war with Iran.

Rich was only used once. Ryan said, “There aren’t enough rich people and small businesses to tax to pay for all their spending.” “Wealth” and the “Wealthy” was mentioned sixteen times between the two candidates.

Weakness was mentioned five times by Ryan in reference to the world view of America under the Obama administration.

47 percent was mentioned five times by Biden in reference to Romney’s “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what…” statement.


The Style

On The Attack: Vice President Biden and Representative Ryan were on the attack to defend their candidates positions. According to the Guardian‘s analysis, Biden attacked Governor Romney in 21 instances and Ryan in 10 cases. Ryan made verbal attacks against President Obama in 28 cases, and Biden in only 2 moments.

Supporting Their Position: The Guardian also recorded instances of the debaters saying He, Me, and We in reference to their candidate, themselves, and the combined ticker. Ryan said “me” 49 times, “he” 20 times, and “we” 97 times. Biden used “me” 83 times, “he” 24 times, and “we” 93 times.

The Giggles: Biden openly laughed in response to Ryan’s statements fifteen times over the course of the debate. He also couldn’t stop smiling. Not sure if this is a debate strategy or similar to the way animals intimidate their prey by showing their teeth. Either way, openly laughing at an opponent is the most direct non-verbal was of expressing complete derision. This ties back to Biden’s use of “my friend” and referring to Ryan’s claims as “malarkey,” an ultimately silly and infantile sounding word.

Tone: Toward the end of the debate, Raddatz turned the questions toward social and personal matter and each candidate responded with a considerable change in the inflection of their voice. Biden’s voice became lower and gentler, almost like he was trying to sooth through his words. (It was particularly effective when speaking of his Catholic faith and it’s impact on his abortion policy: “My religion defines who I am, and I’ve been a practicing Catholic my whole life. And has particularly informed my social doctrine. The Catholic social doctrine talks about taking care of those who—who can’t take care of themselves, people who need help.”)

Ryan overall came off as more fluent and direct in his speaking with even delivery throughout all the crucial moments like his closing remarks. Biden had one moment where he was struggling for words (he repeated the word “decimated” multiple times and lost track of his wording) and would occasionally cut himself off mid-sentence to leap from point to point in a given topic.

Answering the Questions: Despite Raddatz strong command of the flow of conversation and precise follow-up questioning, both candidates would deviate from the exact questions and recite more-or-less pre-scripted party rhetoric. A particularly grating example was when Raddatz asked “If you are elected, what could you both give to this country as a man, as a human being, that no one else could?” and Ryan responded “There are plenty of fine people who could lead this country. But what you need are people who, when they say they’re going to do something, they go do it. What you need are, when people see problems, they offer solutions to fix those problems. We’re not getting that.” This essentially boils down his ability to govern as being not Obama/Biden.

This was not a Socratic debate in that the debaters weren’t particularly interacting with one another, but were better at identifying a particular issue and applying their partisan glaze to it in response. Their rhetoric matched that purpose near perfectly.


Attribution

Washington Post Transcript of VP Debate
The Guardian Debate Decoder


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