Linguistic sleuths are poking into every nook and cranny of the anonymous op-ed piece recently published in The New York Times. They're seeking any verbal tell — an eccentric word choice, a syntactic peculiarity, a stylistic signature — that might reveal the identity of the writer.
One of the most idiosyncratic fragments of this verbal hand grenade came in its penultimate paragraph, which called Sen. John McCain "a lodestar for restoring honor to public life." "Lodestar" is a term favored by Vice President Mike Pence. Could this be a tip-off to second-banana shenanigans?
Derived from two Middle English words, "lode" ("course, way") and "sterre" (star), "lodestar" appeared during the 1300s, first referring to a star that shows the way and later to any paragon or exemplar.
But some analysts think the writer deliberately planted "lodestar" as a red herring, a misleading detail designed to throw the bloodhounds off the trail. (My favorite Middle English-derived word in the essay is "thwart," which appears in the subhead: "... like-minded colleagues and I have vowed to thwart parts of his agenda.")
So what should linguistic detectives be looking for? I'd examine patterns rather than specific words.
This writer LOVES alliteration: "the president flip-flopped"; "he engages in repetitive rants"; "the special counsel looms large"; "it may be cold comfort in this chaotic era"; "Americans should ... break free of the tribalism trap."
Tellingly, it's alliteration that powers one of the essay's most potent points: "This isn't the work of the so-called deep state. It's the work of the steady state."
That passage also exemplifies another of the author's pet rhetorical devices: antithesis — the dramatic juxtaposition of two opposing ideas through parallel words, phrases or sentences.
Some examples: "At best, he has invoked these ideals in scripted settings. At worst, he has attacked them outright"; "The rest of the administration is operating on another track, one where ... allies around the world are engaged as peers rather than ridiculed as rivals (alliteration again); "We are trying to do what's right even when Donald Trump won't." "The bigger concern is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but rather what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us."
So we're looking for someone in the West Wing who cherishes alliteration, antithesis and anonymity. We could dub this writer "Triple A," but I prefer "Deep Thwart."
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.