On the language of scandal

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It was Nicole Messina who made me realize what the Clinton scandal is doing to the English language. Nicole had been a White House intern for four months, and, when she was selected as Miss District of Columbia for the Miss America competition, she asked that "White House intern" be deleted from her rsum because "I don't want anyone to have preconceptions about who I am."

You will understand that I like words and don't like seeing them falling into disrepute. I have had previous occasion to point to lost words like "gay," which once meant happy, as in, "When our hearts were young and gay." Or "welfare," as in prosperity or well-being, not abject dependence.

Or "zoo," as an animal park, not as in "it's a zoo out there." And "correct," as in right or accurate, and not as in "politically correct."

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Political scandals don't necessarily have to impoverish the language. Watergate enriched it with colorful expressions like "third-rate burglary," "inoperative," "twisting slowly in the wind," and "Deep Throat," which was actually rescued from the title of an erotic movie and given more dignified status as an important anonymous source. And "gate," as the shorthand suffix for scandal.

But "Monicagate," rather than enrich the language, has impoverished it. Can one, without a smile, say "intern," or, without a snicker, or "blue dress," or "sexual relationship," or just "relationship"? Even the simple word "is" - as in "it depends what the meaning of 'is' is" - can be enough to lift a knowing eyebrow. And when representatives speak of the Senate as "the other body," that can be enough to bring a smile.

What Monicagate has also done, aside from giving new associations to old expressions, is to bring words out of the closet that maybe should have stayed in the closet. I would not have imagined a year ago that expressions such as "phone sex" would force their way into legal proceedings and from there into the news media.

I guess that is why I enjoyed Watergate and don't enjoy Monicagate.

Watergate was about power, and when John Dean testified of having warned President Nixon of "a cancer growing on the presidency," that was powerful stuff.

Monicagate is not about strength, but weakness. And when the House managers talked of "a cancer on the presidency," they dignified the scandal too much.

*Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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