The Loud, Empty Word That Defines President-Elect Trump
‘Very’ is one of Donald Trump’s favorite words. What does he hope to achieve using a word that may be insistent, but is often empty of meaning?
Perhaps because there are so many casualties already accruing and so much damage already being done, it has gone less noted than it should that among the incoming Trump administration’s most endangered victims is the English language itself. Nouns shudder. Adjectives cower. The entire edifice of grammar quivers with fear as January 20th nears.
Of course, one could make the argument that at a time when all the groceries are up in the air, we must prioritize what to catch. Climate change and war are eggs; perhaps language is a loaf of bread.
But language, as any linguist, Lacanian or deliman knows, is the sandwich within which we stuff our world. If a thing doesn’t fit inside our words, we can’t bring it to our mouths. It is fundamentally indigestible.
As a speaker and Tweeter of the English language, Donald Trump makes George W. Bush, our last least literate president, seem like William Jennings Bryan.
As researchers in Carnegie Mellon University's Language Technologies Institute (LTI), have noted, throughout the campaign he lagged behind his fellow Republican hopefuls and his Democratic opponents in terms of both lexical level and grammar. He speaks on a sixth grade level but makes it only about halfway through fifth grade in terms of grammar. His word choice—the so-called lexical level—is as picked over as a rack at a sample sale late in the day.
The tide so low it is inevitable the shoals would show. And from the toxic, batshit-racist, bullshit pool of his, there is one that keeps bobbing to the surface: the word “very.”
How strong is Trump on Israel The answer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, “very strong on Israel.” How is his disastrous transition going? “Very very smoothly.” Hey, how did that meet-cute with Obama go? “We had a very nice conversation.” And Putin’s letter? It was “a very nice letter.”
Those computers, however, the kind with which Russia hacked the election, “have complicated lives very greatly.” Trump rarely varies his very’s though occasionally—42 times during the campaign—he doubles them up, which, like a double bounce on the trampoline, exponentially increases the veriness.
In an analysis of Trump’s language during the campaign, University of Pennsylvania Professor of Linguistics Mark Liberman found Trump’s usage of the word “very” surpassed only “they,” “I,” “don’t,” “going,” and “it.” It rates just above “tremendous.”
Furthermore, Liberman found that Trump’s rate of usage far outstripped that of the other candidates. He used the word at a rate of 6960 times per million. That’s more than Clinton and Sanders combined.
Why is that very worrisome? Very is as an intensifier. Like the words “strongly” or “extremely” it carries scant information about that which it is modifying except that that whatever it is, it is intense, bro. It’s like a lexical underline or textual shouting.
“Very” wasn’t always this way. Originally in the late 13th century, the word derived from the Anglo-French verray, which of course, means “true, real, genuine.” It was a close cousin to its slightly more Biblical “verily.” One can still see the contours of this meaning in the French word, vrai. For 200 years, “very” meant ‘true’ in English until in the 15th century, when it came to mean extremely. And here’s where our troubles began.
Today, though stripped of its literal meaning of truthiness, “very” is a very dangerous word. It’s dumb in the sense that it is the Blaster to the modified Master, blind in the sense it has no eyes of its own. It’s both like a drug that no matter what you feel, simply intensifies that feeling, and like a puppet, has no animating spark of its own.
Perhaps Trump is simply the apotheosis of a larger cultural movement toward hollowing out meaning. Much of our cultural output—at least the monetized part--depends on virality, which is a method of transmission rather than a constitutional description, and on platforms, which are purportedly if not actually neutral.
In bleak conference rooms across America, the much ballyhooed content strategy is to make “viral content.” The biggest media companies—Google, Facebook and Twitter—hide behind the excuse that they are simply platforms, free of any identifying characteristics.
More specifically and even less defined are memes which, by definition, are sufficiently vague to be widely applied. We live in an era of memes which is to say our depth of focus has shortened to see only the lens, not the contents of the image behind it. Or, in the case, of very, the intensity without what that intensity is applied to.
As it pertains to Donald Trump, there are two insidious aspects to his usage of the word. Firstly, and more substantially, his fondness for it belies the fundamental truth that he too is, essentially, an intensifier. He is a living embodiment of the word, very: empty and inflammatory. He pumps up contrast and darkens the shadows. That’s great for an Instagram filter but terrible for the world.
Every time he writes “very” or “very very,” one cannot help but be reminded that we are entering into an administration that privileges the volume of the song more than its melody. Like the word itself, the 45th president is an indiscriminate megaphone, adding fire- and horsepower to whosoever holds his attention.
But secondly, in the vast oil slick of words that flows from his mouth, “very” takes up space one might hope might be occupied by more substantial synonyms, plucked from the vast array of words available. For every “very nice,” a substantial, constructive, respectful or warm sits unused. For every “very strong on Israel,” a more precise policy statement, made with words that matter, wilts a little bit. For every “Merry Christmas and a very, very, very, very Happy New Year to everyone!,” an opportunity is lost to limn more accurately how exactly and what would make the new year happy.
Vain is the hope and foolish the desire that Mr. Trump should ever be a beacon of learning. And among the many things we can no longer look to the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (or more likely, 721 Fifth Avenue) for is linguistic inspiration. Trump uses language roughly, swings it like an axe with great force but not precision. And if there’s a word he doesn’t know or care to use, that’s okay by him. He just grabs it by the very and says it anyway.