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With 'Otherize,' Pundits Reach Outside The Dictionary To Describe Politics


Now it's time for our regular segment Word's You'll Hear. That's where we try to understand stories we'll be hearing more about by parsing some of the words associated with those stories. Today, we're going to look at a word we've been hearing more frequently during this election season. And in fact, you might have heard it this past week.


S.E. CUPP: The Trump campaign has attempted to otherize other candidates when they were surging.

MARTIN: How's that again?


CUPP: Otherize - other - otherize other candidates.

MARTIN: That's conservative commentator S.E. Cupp on CNN on Super Tuesday using our word of the week to describe what she said was one of Donald Trump's campaign tactics. It turns out that this word, which isn't even in the dictionary yet, has been popping in and out of use over the past several years. We wanted to hear more about it, so we called linguist Ben Zimmer once again. He chairs the New Words Committee at the American Dialect Society. He's also a language columnist for the Wall Street Journal. Welcome back, Ben, thanks for joining us.

BEN ZIMMER: Hi, thanks for having me again.

MARTIN: So Ben, what is she trying to say here? And what are we supposed to understand otherize to mean?

ZIMMER: OK, well, people are familiar with the word other, but turning that into a verb may seem a little unusual, at least for people outside of academia. So the idea of treating someone as outside of a particular dominant social group or social norm is generally what is meant when you turn other into a verb. But what we're hearing more frequently is other plus that I-Z-E ending, or even otherization.

MARTIN: So is this new?

ZIMMER: Well, turning other into a verb does have a long history. Actually, it goes all the way back to the German philosopher Hegel, who wrote in the early 19th century about consciousness of the self versus the other. And by the early 20th century in English writing, you see the other being turned into a verb to describe the act of making a person or a group be excluded from a particular norm. And that's been called othering. So this otherize form has been showing up more frequently lately. But it's interesting now it's being used on CNN to talk about Trump and how he's handling the other candidates in the Republican race.

MARTIN: Now, you are telling us that that's not the first time you heard that term used in a political context?

ZIMMER: Yeah, we've heard that word otherize getting used about the way that President Obama has been treated, for instance. And so Van Jones, another CNN commentator, a progressive commentator was talking about this last year when there was a comment from Rudy Giuliani which seemed to question President Obama's love for his country.

MARTIN: Let's hear that.


VAN JONES: But it does go to this strategy that he - now apparently even Giuliani has gotten tripped up of trying to otherize the president.

MARTIN: He could have said this is racist, but he didn't say that. He's using a different term. So what's the purpose of this distinction, in your view?

ZIMMER: Well, I think that it can refer to race or it can refer to other aspects of social identity. And when it comes up to President Obama, there were sort of various attempts to portray him as not one of us. You could look at the birther movement as an example of that. And even, for instance, the use of his full name by conservative commentators, referring to him as Barack Hussein Obama, could be seen as othering are otherizing.

MARTIN: So the fact that we're now hearing it in the context of an election, does that signal something to you as a linguist?

ZIMMER: I think it may have to do with the fact that identity politics itself is just being more discussed.

MARTIN: So do you think that otherize might be a candidate for your list of new words for this coming year?

ZIMMER: It could very well be something that we'll be talking about as a Word of the Year candidate. But during election years, we always get lots of very interesting words and phrases coming into the language. And we'll just have to keep track of all of them.

MARTIN: That's Ben Zimmer. He chairs the New Words Committee he at the American Dialect Society. He's language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, and he joined us from our bureau in New York. Thanks Ben.

ZIMMER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.