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Politics' newest $40 word harks back to the 1840s

William Safire once lauded Bill Clinton for using 'contradistinction' correctly. Now, it appears to be making a comeback. 

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    Sen. James Lankford threw the dictionary at Senate minority leader Harry Reid.
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Contradistinction: A highbrow word referring to a distinction made by contrasting the qualities of two or more things; though old-fashioned, it’s getting use lately among politicians and pundits.

When you use “contradistinction,” you’re making clear the difference between things by comparing them, such as painting in contradistinction to sculpture, or plants and animals in contradistinction to humans. The use of the word actually peaked in the 1840s and has been gradually diminishing ever since, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer.

But in the conservative American Spectator, Stephen Moore recently wrote: “I’ve said some nice things about Donald Trump of late and have been excoriated by many on the anti-Trump right (in contradistinction from the anti-Trump left) for this act of treason.”

Also this month, Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma (R) took to the Senate floor to complain about what he called Senate minority leader Harry Reid’s inconsistency in urging Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and other Republicans to permit a vote on Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. Senator Reid has come under sharp criticism on the right for his remark 11 years ago, when Republican George W. Bush was president, that the Constitution doesn’t require the chamber to vote on a chief executive’s nominees.

“Senator Reid chastised Senator Grassley, saying he wants to rewrite the Constitution,” Senator Lankford said. “In 2005, Senator Reid stood on this floor and encouraged all members to read the Constitution and that it nowhere requires that we have to take an up-or-down vote. So I don’t know which one to take on this: The current statements from Senator Reid or the previous statements from Senator Reid, because they’re in direct contradistinction.”

Meanwhile, Seth Lipsky of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted that Donald Trump has been sharply critical of the nuclear deal that Iran struck with the United States and five other world powers, “in sharp contradistinction to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.” And in describing Senator Sanders’s victory in Michigan’s Democratic primary, Marilyn Katz of In These Times wrote how it surprised TV networks: “In contradistinction to the previous week, no network called the race for Sanders until more than 95 percent of the votes were in despite the fact that there had been a 20,000-vote gap for some time.”

Politicians occasionally have pulled out the word in years past. The late language guru William Safire pointed out then-President Bill Clinton’s deployment of it in 1994: “I’m glad you asked that question,” Clinton said at a news conference, “in contradistinction to the one you asked right afterward.”

Clinton “used the word correctly and, by using a $40 word … elevated the public discourse,” Mr. Safire wrote. “However, politicians seeking the common touch might prefer ‘in contrast to’ or ‘which is much different from.’ ”

Safire couldn’t resist adding a reference to the “Iran-contra” arms-for-hostages scandal of the 1980s that bedeviled Ronald Reagan: “Critics of the foreign policy of past administrations should steer clear of contra constructions.”

Chuck McCutcheon writes his "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

Interested in decoding what candidates are saying? Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark’s latest book, “Doubletalk: The Language, Code, and Jargon of a Presidential Election,” has just been released.

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