Another Reason You Should Have Listened in English Class

Bill O’Reilly wants an explanation. Evidently, former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman visited the White House 157 times. This, O’Reilly (and anyone else who refers to the President as “that Kenyan”) is the smoking gun on the biggest scandal to hit the White House since Watergate. Or Benghazi. Or the birth certificate. Or shooting skeet. Or the stolen election (Obama’s not Bush’). Or any other daily event from a Democratic president.

Creative writing graduates used to work for magazines. Now they get hired by FoxNews.

The problem with the “smoking gun” is there is no gun or smoke. (Mostly because Obama is an anti-gun liberal who daily tramples on the second amendment according to my crazy Facebook friend. He might have a smoking rubber band or smoking jacket. Never a gun.)

Clearly, Mr. O’Reilly, a man who reminds his listeners on a regular basis that he used to teach in public schools (therefore, by implication, he is an educational expert and just a regular guy who happens to earn $10 million a year), didn’t teach an English class where they discussed metonymy and synecdoche.

Metonymy, for those of you who listened as well as Mr. O’Reilly, is what us fancy pants English professors (and other educated folks) call a figure of speech. When we talk about Hollywood, we might really mean the movie industry. We talk about our bosses as “Suits,” call those liberal, pinko communists in the Main Stream Media (or the Lame Stream Media as some folks so cleverly call it) the “Press,” and, on a much simpler level, offer someone a shoulder to cry on. Trust me–they don’t expect you to just hand them the shoulder. That would be creepy. And gross.

Synecdoche is another of those terms you were supposed to learn in the 8th grade that we use when we talk about a part of something to refer to the whole. Sometimes, we flip-flop and refer to the whole when we really mean a smaller part. For instance, we might call for “all hands on deck” in times of trouble, even though we really want legs, torsos, and heads also. We ask for someone’s “John Hancock” on a document to signal their approval, and a cattle thief will steal a “head of cattle.” Presumably, he took the rest of the cow also. The head isn’t worth all that much and they are difficult to detach.

Admittedly, these two terms are easy to confuse. Both are subsets of metaphor and, if you ever plan to teach English or pontificate after a few beers at an office party, you want to understand the finer distinctions between the two terms. Everyone loves that guy at the party.

But if you are simply going to bloviate on national television, you should at the very least understand that going to the White House doesn’t equate to visiting with the President because 1) the White House is an actual house with many rooms; 2) there are an awful lot of people who work in the White House; and 3) you are supposed to have an actual working brain in your head if you make $10 million a year.

As a “news station,” and I use that term loosely with FoxNews, they regularly report that “The White House said . . .” For consistency’s sake, do we assume FoxNews actually believes the White House is talking?

Of course not. (We hope?)

When the White House releases a press release, we realize as listeners this is metonymy–the White House equals the president and his staff. And, more importantly (since it’s Friday and understanding words can sometimes give us a headache) when we go to the White House Visitor Access Records, we notice that Shulman visited with many people not named Barack Obama. In fact, as the director of the IRS, the agency responsible for coordinating health care exchanges, Shulman met with various people in the other agencies undertaking this massive attempt at providing nominal health care for American citizens.

But why let the facts get in the way. Again.

I’ll admit that I’m no fan of the IRS tax laws and I have mixed feelings about nationalized health care. There are even days where I don’t like what I hear coming from the White House (see me use metonymy in a sentence! You try it). But let’s stop spending all our time pounding the scandal drumbeat on this one.

There’s bound to be a stained dress somewhere on which Republicans can tie their impeachment hopes.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

2 Responses to Another Reason You Should Have Listened in English Class

  1. I don’t remember learning either of these words, but am delighted for the explanations (had to look up the pronunciations). The word ‘bloviate’ is definitely onomatopoetic!

    • John Wegner says:

      Thanks for reading. You needed Mrs. Rice for 8th grade English. We learned them, if I remember correctly, with the threat of repeating 8th grade English hanging over our heads. I love the world bloviate. It seems so appropriate in so many situations.

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