'Ceteris paribus': How political speech cribs from Latin

Why use English when there's a perfectly good Latin phrase at hand to add a touch of gravitas?

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama wipes tears from his face at the White House on Tuesday, as he speaks about steps his administration is taking to reduce gun violence. A critics writes that the speech will 'entrench gun culture' and that 'ceteris paribus, the United States will play host to at least another 20 million guns by the end of December 2016.'

“Ceteris paribus.” A Latin phrase meaning “all other things being equal” or “all else constant” that is used in economics and science but that also is surfacing in politics.

The term is used to refer to the holding constant of factors that might affect an outcome. It’s used to rule out the possibility of changes that could affect that outcome or decision-making process.

University of Virginia political scientist Jonathan Kropko offered an example in a recent textbook: Voters, he noted, tend to approve less of President Obama as they become more conservative. But at the same time, African-Americans approve of Obama at higher rates than white voters regardless of their political ideology.

“This means that if two voters have the same ideology but one is African-American and one is white, then the model suggests that the African-American voter will likely approve of Obama more than the white voter,” Mr. Kropko wrote. “This statement is predicated on a hypothetical situation in which we are comparing two cases that are equal on every variable” except for race.… "These sorts of statements are called ceteris paribus statements, or ‘all else being equal’ statements.”

National Review Online’s Charles C.W. Cooke invoked the phrase this week in sharply criticizing Obama’s executive action on guns.

“By taking this route, Obama will help to entrench America’s gun culture — and for little in return,” Mr. Cooke wrote. “Ceteris paribus, the United States will play host to at least another 20 million guns by the end of December 2016 — many of them so-called ‘assault weapons.’ In addition, the country will welcome another million or so concealed carriers, and another half-million or so NRA members. Every time the president talks about gun control, these numbers increase, and, in consequence, the president’s opponents are strengthened.”

Cooke also employed it a few months earlier to speculate on how Hillary Clinton could lose in the critical early states of Iowa and New Hampshire before adding, “Ceteris paribus, she still seems to have to best chance overall” to become the Democrats’ nominee.

Cooke, however, is far from alone in Latinizing political talk. Writing in U.S. News & World Report, Arthur Holland Michel used the expression to discuss the controversy over using unmanned drones to kill suspected terrorists after two al-Qaeda hostages accidentally were killed in a Pakistan strike. “For the foreseeable future, it is very unlikely that, ceteris paribus, anybody (or anything) will definitively settle this debate once and for all,” he wrote. “The next time a controversial drone strike hits the headlines, the same lines of thinking that we saw in circulation last week will simply be rehashed.”

And in a House floor speech, Rep. Gerald Connolly (D) of Virginia brought it up in a debate over a resolution last year calling for the removal of US troops from Iraq and Syria. “This resolution was drafted, as they say in Latin, ceteris paribus – all other things being equal. That is to say, in a perfect world,” Congressman Connolly said. “We don’t live in a perfect world. Our engagements are what they are. Our commitments are what they are.”

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,” will be released on Jan. 19 and is now available for pre-order.

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