Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Retain vs. Re-elect

Posted by Neal on October 24, 2006

Ann Fisher, a columnist for the Columbus Dispatch, had an eye-opening piece yesterday. She talks about a gambit used by political parties…

…in which the incumbent resigns before his term ends.

The party then appoints a replacement who has the advantage of incumbency in the next election. This is legal. Politicians and their party leaders, be they Democrats or Republicans, sometimes plot such shifts weeks, months, or even years in advance.

The point is that both parties do it. But they don’t like to admit as much because the idea offends some voters.
Ann Fisher, “Both parties love to play monkey move up,” The Columbus Dispatch, Oct. 23, 2006, p. D1)

The idea certainly offends me, so I was glad to read Fisher’s next paragraph, which offered some information I could use:

How can you tell the difference…? Look for the campaign signs urging voters to “retain” instead of “re-elect” a candidate.

A-ha! I’ve seen those signs, and never realized the significance of the wording. But now that Fisher has laid it out for me, I see it’s a clear case of Q-based narrowing. As I wrote a couple of years ago, “[Q-based narrowing] happens when word B denotes a specific kind of what word A denotes. Eventually, word A comes to be used as if it refers to everything word A denotes except for the things that word B denotes.” Here, word A is retain, and word B is re-elect, a specific way of retaining someone. If you can unambiguously and truthfully say re-elect, implicating that a candidate was good enough to get elected before, why on earth would you choose the less specific retain? You wouldn’t, and now retain on campaign posters is used to refer only to keeping someone in office who wasn’t elected to it.

3 Responses to “Retain vs. Re-elect

  1. Jangari said

    That’s all well and good, but what of sign (eg., a contract) versus resign?
    Surely to resign is to sign again; to keep one’s job. Not to quit!
    By the way, here in Australia we don’t have that re-elect/retain problem. A politician can be re-elected ad infinitum. But that leaves a problem that’s even worse. We’ve had the same incumbent reptile in office for over a decade.
    I’d say we need a Wetergate, but we have no more water in this country!

  2. Bob said

    resign / re-sign is one of my favorite Janus words. Another that’s not often thought of is fast (run fast / stand fast).

  3. […] which a word’s meaning gets restricted over time. One is called Q-based narrowing (discussed here before). To recap, Q-based narrowing occurs when you have a term A that can refer to a variety of […]

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