“They love it when you shuffle the words around.”

The TV show “Community” is set among the goof-offs and layabouts of the fictional Greendale Community College, but each individual episode uses that setting to stage a high-concept satire or parody, of anything from conspiracy theories to narcissistic directors to mafia movies. One of their recent episodes satirized political elections — an easy target, admittedly, and one that’s been shot at plenty already, but I thought Community’s take was a particularly fun one, because of the silly heights to which they took things.

Briefly: the school dean has just learned that vice president Joe Biden is coming to visit Greendale that afternoon (as part of his folksy-yet-progressive “Biden’ Time Talkin’ ’bout ‘Teachin'” tour around America’s colleges), and that Biden wants to meet with the student body president. Greendale has none, because no one ever bothered to elect a student government, so the dean decides to hold some last-minute elections.

Annie Edison, the fresh-faced idealist, jumps at the chance to run for student body president so that she can make some much-needed changes around the school, like cleaning up the black mold that’s been taking over the stairwells. In response, cynical Jeff Winger decides to run against her — not because he cares about politics, or about Greendale, but simply to prove to her that politics is a charade.

The campaign scenes will be familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a political debate.

Annie: “I just want to clean up Greendale.
Jeff: “Are you saying Greendale is dirty?”
(audience boos at Annie)
Annie: “Well — of course it’s dirty. Everyone knows that.”
Jeff: “I don’t, Annie. I think it’s clean. I think it’s the cleanest school in the entire country.”
(audience cheers for Jeff)

Eventually, the debate degenerates into two candidates trading catchphrases:

Magnitude: “Pop-pop!”
Leonard: (blows a raspberry)
Magnitude: “Pop-pop!”
Leonard: (blows a raspberry)


Not a bad representation of the elevated level of political discourse in our country, really.

Anyway, one of the jokes that struck a chord with me was something Jeff says when the candidates are asked what they’ll do if elected.

Jeff: “What will I do if elected? Well, Dean, these people don’t want me to say what I’ll do. (dramatic pause) …They want me to do what I’ll say!”
(cheers from the audience)
Jeff (smugly, to Annie): “They love it when you shuffle the words around.”

I’ve long been suspicious of rhetorical devices. Of course, just because someone uses one, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re trying to pull a fast one on me, but it does instantly put me on my guard. And the swapping-words trick is one of my particular pet peeves. I’ve noticed it not only in speeches, but in idioms in general, which serve as a kind of folk-wisdom for our culture.

You might assume that the fact that certain idioms get passed on time after time might constitute some evidence for them being true — it’s not unreasonable to imagine a kind of Darwinian selection of idioms, in which the accurate idioms survive and get passed on, while the inaccurate ones die out. But the picture becomes more complicated when there are other factors influencing an idiom’s survival besides its accuracy. For example, whether it sounds good.

And there is something about that word-swapping pattern that mimics the sound of wisdom. I can think of a number of other examples off the top of my head — for example, “It isn’t about the size of the dog in the fight. It’s about the size of the fight in the dog!” Or, “Happiness isn’t about being with the one you love. It’s about loving the one you’re with.” But of course, mimicking the sound of wisdom isn’t the same as being true. So it’s helpful to learn to recognize the sound of mimicry, and take an extra hard look at the statements it’s coming from.

In closing, I also have to include this bonus clip of the election coverage from this episode of Community. Troy and Abed provide a pitch-perfect satire of the fast-paced but inane patter of news networks covering the electoral race:

Troy: This election’s becoming a real horse race! According to our polls, the campus is almost evenly divided. Now keep in mind, the margin of error on this thing’s about 98 percent.”
Abed: “Could be higher. We don’t even know how to do margins of error. We talked to two people at a vending machine.”

5 Responses to “They love it when you shuffle the words around.”

  1. Brian Engler says:

    It would be interesting to know when this word-swapping pattern started. The first I recall hearing was when JFK said in his inaugural speech ( and yes–I’m that old šŸ˜‰ ): “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.” He and the events surrounding his aborted presidency really impacted most of us who lived through those times, so ever since then, whenever I’ve heard something phrased in this way, I’ve just assumed it was to mimic Kennedy. Maybe not, though. Maybe, as you suggest, the pattern just sounds sagacious and so has been around for a long time. It gives me something to think about–thanks, Julia.

  2. David McGee says:

    The first time I remember being excruciatingly annoyed by the word shuffle was during a 2004 Democratic primary debate. The candidates were asked the ridiculous question “Is God on America’s side?” (actually, the whole exchange is worth looking at):

    Senator Kerry said “Well, God will – look, I think – I believe in God. That I don’t believe, the way President Bush does, in invoking it all the time in that way. I think it is – we pray that God is on our side and we pray hard. And God has been on our side through most of our existence.”

    Senator Edwards quoted Lincoln saying “Well, there’s a wonderful story about Abraham Lincoln during the middle of the Civil War bringing in a group of leaders and at the end of the meeting one of the leaders said, Mr. President, can we pray, can we please join in prayer that God is on our side? And Abraham Lincoln’s response was, I won’t join you in that prayer, but I’ll join you in a prayer that we’re on God’s side.”

    Reverend Sharpton said “I think it’s important we’re on God’s side, as I said earlier, that we bless America. But I also think we’ve got to heal this president from feeling like he and America is the same thing. God is on America’s side. That does not mean he supports what George Bush is doing with America.”

    And Rep. Kucinich said “We need to break – we need to break the spell of fear which is over this country. Remember where we come from as a country. When Francis Scott Key wrote that “Star-Spangled Banner” he made the connection when he said, “Does that star-spangled banner yet wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave?” the connection between democracy and courage? I would call out the courage of the American people and defend our rights, cancel the Patriot Act, reestablish the fullness of our democracy. ”

    And that’s why I voted for Dennis Kucinich.

    (whole debate text: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/29/politics/campaign/text-nydebate.html?pagewanted=all)

  3. Max says:

    From an insurance commercial:
    We don’t just raise the bar, we ARE the bar.

    Huh? What does that even mean?

    • Max says:

      The exact quote is, “AAA doesn’t set the bar, they are the bar.”

      Yeah, in Soviet Russia, bar sets you, and you ask what you can do for your country.

  4. Andrew T says:

    Word-swapping always makes me think of the Sphinx ever since Mystery Men came out.

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