Two of the most basic words in the English language, yes and no, are locked in a constant struggle, embodying abstract forces of agreement and opposition, positivity and negativity, acceptance and denial. Just look at the recent Congressional wrangling over health care reform, where the words have come to stand for much more than simply the up or down votes that legislators may cast. Democrats seeking a final compromise over health care legislation have talked optimistically about getting to yes. “I just wish and hope some of my colleagues will be willing to help us get to yes on this,” Senator Mark Warner of Virginia said. And a House leadership aide told The Huffington Post, “We do have an environment where people can now get to yes.”
Getting to yes has become a creaky cliché in political and business circles thanks to a best-selling negotiation manual with that title first published in 1981. The authors of “Getting to Yes,” Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project, outlined the best strategies for reaching a settlement by identifying “options for mutual gain.” Fisher had been experimenting with the word yes for quite a while. Back in 1969, he argued in the book “International Conflict for Beginners” that the key to getting the other side of the bargaining table to agree is to present them with a “yesable proposition.” It is no surprise that supporters of Barack (Yes We Can) Obama would draw on the conciliatory rhetoric of getting to yes.
Blocking the road to yes on health care and other initiatives, however, is the Republican Congressional minority, which has been painted by Democrats as “the party of no.” It’s been a common refrain since the early months of the Obama administration, when the Democratic National Committee introduced a “Party of No” clock on its Web site, tallying the time Republicans spent criticizing Obama’s budget plan without offering their own alternative.
Leading Republicans, for their part, have either disavowed the “party of no” label or have found canny ways to reclaim it. Mitt Romney told the Conservative Political Action Conference to embrace no proudly, explaining, “it is right and praiseworthy to say no to bad things.” Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, meanwhile, has offered a punny twist: “We’re the party of know: k-n-o-w.”
When Democrats use “the party of no” to criticize Republican obstructionism, they are unwittingly echoing Ronald Reagan. The expression has historical resonances, like Truman’s election-year complaints in 1948 about “the do-nothing Congress” or Spiro Agnew’s memorable line (penned in 1970 by his speechwriter, William Safire) excoriating “the nattering nabobs of negativism.”
But Reagan was the first to paint the opposing party so forcefully with the brush of “no.” At the welcoming rally of the 1988 Republican National Convention, Reagan blasted the opposition as “the party of no,” while appealing to “rank-and-file Democrats” who had been alienated by the “strident liberalism and negativism” of party leaders. “The party of ‘yes’ has become the party of ‘no,’ ” Reagan, himself a former Democrat, said. “The liberal leadership of your party has been saying no to you, and now it’s time for you to start saying no to them.” The boisterous crowd reacted to Reagan by chanting the antidrug slogan his wife, Nancy, did so much to popularize: “Just say no!”
James Carville, who knew a powerful political catchphrase when he heard one, turned “the party of no” back on Republicans in the spring of 1993 when President Clinton was working to pass a stimulus bill. Clinton himself went further the following year, calling the Republicans the party of “no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” in an angry speech at a Boston fund-raiser. Other leading Democrats like Al Gore and Dick Gephardt used the phrase to disparage Republicans in the Clinton era.
At the beginning of George W. Bush’s second term, “the party of no” became a Republican talking point again, spearheaded by Tom DeLay, then the House majority leader. After Bush’s 2005 State of the Union address, DeLay said of the Democrats: “They’ve become the party of ‘no.’ No ideas, no solutions, no agenda. You know, ‘Just say no’ is not an agenda.” Now, five years later, the no wheel has turned yet again, proving that Reagan’s original phrase is endlessly adaptable to changing political circumstances.
Yes and no can accrue symbolic heft through what linguists call “zero nominalization,” whereby a noun is created from some other part of speech without adding a typical suffix like -ness or -ation. Nouny versions of yes and no have enjoyed quite a ride from the political class, but they also get plenty of play in pop culture. On the positive side of the ledger, Wendy Macleod’s play and subsequent movie adaptation “The House of Yes” tells the story of an entitled rich girl who will not be denied. Maria Dahvana Headley’s 2006 memoir of a year spent accepting dates from any man who asked her out is titled, naturally enough, “The Year of Yes.”
But the power of no is even more primal, perhaps because it is so often among the first words that English speakers learn as children. The poet James Tate imagines it as a territory of sorts, writing, “I went out of myself into no, into nowhere.” In slangy vernacular, no can turn into a material substance: the teenage title character in the 2007 movie “Juno” protests, “That’s a big, fat sack of no!” Bauer-Griffin Online, a paparazzi photo blog, critiques celebrities with snarky headlines like “Kelly Preston Is a Bucket of ‘No’ ” or “Phoebe Price, Pile of ‘No.’ ” In our culture of negativity, all too often the noes have it.
Barbara Orris asks: “The word avuncular means ‘of, pertaining to, or characteristic of an uncle.’ Is there a word that means pertaining to or characteristic of an aunt?”
A handful of adjectives related to aunts have been recorded in English, though none are as common as the male counterpart, avuncular. The most straightforward is auntly, modeled after motherly, fatherly, sisterly and brotherly, with scattered usage back to the 1830s. (Uncly is even rarer.) Auntish and auntlike are other alternatives that append aunt with familiar suffixes.
If we take the Latinate approach à la avuncular, then the Oxford English Dictionary provides materteral, attested since 1823 in humorous use, meaning “characteristic or typical of an aunt.” Classics majors would be quick to point out that the Latin roots of these words only cover maternal siblings: avunculus means “mother’s brother” and matertera means “mother’s sister.” On the paternal side, there’s patruus for “father’s brother” and amita for “father’s sister.”
In 1982, when William Safire asked his loyal Lexicographic Irregulars for “a word to fill this black hole in our vocabulary,” creative suggestions included auntique, tantular, tantoid, and tantative. One of his correspondents, Arianna Stassinopoulos (now better known as Arianna Huffington), was drawn to the Latin root amita, noting that “so far no English word derived from it exists.” She added, “There is, however, no reason why we cannot here and now invent it and proclaim that all aunts on the father’s side must from now on end their letters ‘Yours amitally.’” Safire declared amital the best of the lot, despite the “happily drugged” sound of it.
Amital has, in fact, cropped up in anthropological studies of kinship since the 1940s but, like materteral, it has never made any headway in general use. Avuncular, meanwhile, has proved a durable descriptor for older public figures with a kindly demeanor, like Ronald Reagan and Walter Cronkite. It would probably take a thesis in gender studies to explain this terminological imbalance. Notably, traditional stereotypes about aunts have often been less than flattering: a literature search for auntish turns up many examples of “maiden auntish,” evoking images of forlorn spinsterhood.
Our new language columnist, Ben Zimmer, will answer one reader question every other week.
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