An occasional look at the language of politics

Today's phrase:

DESPERATE ATTEMPT

Definition: All-purpose phrase of political push-back, employed in response to even the mildest assertion from the opposition.

Recent examples: "While we can be sure they will continue their desperate attempts to talk down the economy, the Kerry campaign will find they have no leg to stand on when the numbers on growth so obviously speak for themselves," said Bush-Cheney regional press secretary Merrill Smith last month -- before, we should note, the government released its surprisingly tepid July job growth figures. Oh well.

And: After Vice President Cheney derided John Kerry for saying he would wage "a more sensitive war on terror," Kerry fired back that Bush campaign attacks are "pathetic and desperate attempts to avoid coming clean with the American people about their failed policies."

Related usage: The adverbial "desperately." (Still waiting for "desperado.") According to Kerry, there are immigrants who "desperately need" medical care, FBI agents who "desperately need" computer upgrades, and veterans "desperately in need of care." According to President Bush, there are Iraqis "desperate for freedom" and Africans "desperate with hunger."

Antonyms: Nuanced response, sensible idea, fair-minded assessment (not that you'll hear anyone actually use those phrases).

Analysis: It seems early for so much desperation, even as Americans lollygag about on vacation and browse the coupon circulars for back-to-school deals. And what of those admonitions to "turn the corner" and present "an optimistic view of the future"? So why now?

University of California-Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff suggests that desperation "often has to do with life itself, with someone who could die." He is speaking, of course, strictly metaphorically. "Failure is death, and what it suggests is that a desperate attempt has to do with a failure that is an important one," like keeping the country safe or improving the economy. In this election, with opinion hardened early, says Lakoff, "there's not a lot of room to maneuver."

Desperate times call for desperate modifiers.

-- Ann Gerhart

SEN. JOHN KERRY

. . . Cites "desperate attempts"

PRESIDENT BUSH

. . . Sees "desperate" Iraqis