Nationalism

Liberman shared a colleague’s analysis that shows words like “citizens” and “duties” have faded from presidential inaugural addresses, while words like “freedom” and “America” have surged. While it doesn’t explain the shift, he suspects that it’s likely the trend applies to both types of addresses.

Fields suspected the oscillations in “America” (and variations) shadow the popularity of “God Bless America,” which was written by Irving Berlin in 1918 and revised in 1938.

Issues

Not surprisingly, the frequency of policy-oriented words rises sharply in their relevant eras and declines just as sharply thereafter. Some connections to historical events are obvious: The ballooning of the word “oil” in the late 1970s refers to Arab oil embargo, which pole vaulted oil to be a central domestic issue.

Fluctuations with “jobs” correlate with recessions; “environment” creeps up shortly after the Environmental Protection Agency’s establishment in 1970 and the first Earth Day the same year.

Daily Lexicon

With the rise of contractions and the fall of “thus,” Liberman said this is illustrative of a larger, secular trend. “This obviously interacts with genre, and in particular with formality,” he said, stating that “won’t” appears much more frequently in magazines than “will not,” while less of a gap exists in academic papers.

State of the Union addresses incorporated contractions even later than secular dialogue, which hints at the level of formality presidents wish to project. Liberman suggested that the spoken version of the addresses may be more relaxed and contraction-laden than the much more prescribed written documents let on. “Perhaps Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy were using contractions in their performances that were not written as such in their texts,” he said. The increased use of contractions suggests a growing laxity in the written documents rather than in spoken words.

The rise of “tonight,” Fields clarified, was simply the result of the State of the Union addresses occurring in the evening time for the first time with Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 address.

Foreign policy

As with many words in the State of the Union addresses, many instances of country names point to contemporaneous events. This is the case with the following words, which would explain the almost isolated reference of Vietnam in the 1960s (the Vietnam War), the bubbling of “Korea” in the 1950s (the Korean War) and the rise in “Iraq,” “Iran” and “Afghanistan” mentions in recent decades.

“Names of countries get mentioned,” said Fields, “when they demand national attention, usually because of a military situation.”

Rhetoric

The absence of “God” from earlier addresses surprised Fields, who said earlier references framed God as a “divine majesty,” but in later political rhetoric, God has been treated more like an old buddy, one who understands and likes us and one whom we like and understand.”

“Must” was a favorite rallying word of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who used his addresses to assert confidence and assured determination to the nation. The trend continued to blossom in subsequent decades.

Economy

Oscillations in the use of “economy” are predictable - during the Great Depression, just after World War II and finally after the Great Recession. Fields relates the two surges that begin in the 1940s and ’70s to World War II and the Cold War respectively, remarking “the issue is the competition between two economic philosophies, capitalism and communism, and part of America’s Cold War challenge was to be an economic superiority.”

Regarding the upswing in use of “tax” and “taxpayers,” Field explains: “Reagan puts taxes and taxpayers first and foremost—that was ever the political issue that mattered most to him—and was part of a politics that emphasized how much we spent over how we spent it.”

Who we are

Unifying words like “we” and “our” “is an important part of the emphasis upon common cause and shared responsibility,” said Fields, who believes it also helps establish the president as an equal partner to his citizens. “Of course, given the kind of ego that drives politicians,” he said, referring to the more self-centered words, “the “I” will never slip from view.”