The Atlantic Wire, “‘We, the People’: The Power of a Familiar Phrase Now”

January 21, 2013

Jen Doll, “‘We, the People’: The Power of a Familiar Phrase Now” (The Atlantic Wire, Jan. 21, 2013)

Linguist and language columnist Ben Zimmer, who followed today’s swearing in and address and Obama’s first inauguration as well, told me that Obama’s 2009 speech included just one use of “We the People,” at the end of that speech’s second paragraph: “…We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents.” In today’s address, however, Obama “relied on that rhetorical device as a repetitive touchstone, tying the ‘here and now’ of his speech to the legacy of the founding fathers,” Zimmer said, explaining that the phrase has a dual purpose: elevating the presidential rhetoric “by connecting it to the opening words of the Constitution, recognized by all, and framing his call to collective action by emphasizing the inclusive solidarity of that powerful first-person plural pronoun.” […]

Zimmer noted that the verbs used in the “we the people” sentences are declare, understand, and still believe, the latter of which he used three times. “By joining together in a shared declaration, understanding, and belief, Obama suggests, the country can make progress and transcend its divisions. The rhetorical frame allows him to take on modern challenges (climate change or gay rights, for instance), while still presenting policy initiatives of his second term as continuations of bedrock American principles: ‘what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.'”

Read the rest here. (Related Word Routes column)

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