As Donald Trump surges, so does “bloviate.” “The bloviating billionaire” — it’s clearly an alliteration whose time has come. But there’s hardly a candidate or commentator who hasn’t been labeled with the word. Thirty years ago it was dated slang; now it’s seen as the prevailing vice of our public discourse.
“Bloviate” has risen and fallen in American life. It was coined in the 1840s from “blow,” a facetious pseudo-Latinism mocking the inflated oratory of an era when, as Tocqueville observed, Americans couldn’t take to the stump without “venting their pomposity from one end of a harangue to the other.”
That bloated style had its last champion in the 1920s in the affable person of Warren Gamaliel Harding. Harding was blessed with strong pipes and a fine head of white hair. He prided himself on his gift for bloviating, which he defined as “speaking as long as the occasion warrants and saying nothing.” His sonorous platitudes aroused the contempt of H.L. Mencken, who wrote that Harding’s English was a “loud burble of words” fit only for morons and small-town yokels: “It reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.”
Those stump-speech declamations soon fell victim to radio and the modern fashion for naturalness and informality, taking “bloviate” along with it. By the 1970s, the word was moribund. It was arguably saved from extinction only by the timely interventions of language columnist William Safire, who offered it as a replacement for phrases such as “empty rhetoric.”
Then, in the late 1990s, “bloviate” began a dramatic comeback, most likely in response to the sheer pervasiveness of political yammer. Between 24/7 talk radio, cable news, social media, blogs and websites, we’re exposed to more raucous voices in a single week than anyone in the age of Harding could experience in an entire lifetime.
So “bloviate” was summoned back to life, but in a new guise. Its jocular origins are forgotten; you sometimes see Safire credited with inventing it. And it no longer implies pomposity or even long-windedness — people complain about all the bloviating on Twitter. (Harding couldn’t even have said “Ahem!” in 140 characters.) Sometimes it’s just a way of dismissing whole networks and sectors as not worth listening to.
There’s no “correct” way to use “bloviate” — it was never a real word to begin with. But I like to reserve it for the fondness for bombast that runs deep in the American spirit. The classic bloviator is someone so besotted with the majesty of the language that comes out of his or her mouth that it takes on a life of its own. In that sense, bloviating is a kind of backhanded tribute to language.
It’s an occupational hazard that many people who live by words are susceptible to. Think of Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg, or of William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, whose sesquipedalian 1968 debate confrontations are on exhibit in the new documentary “Best of Enemies.” Or David Foster Wallace or Christopher Hitchens — the woods are full of fine writers whose need to say things grandly sometimes comes at the cost of saying them well.
The most artful bloviators are self-aware enough to own it. Buckley tossed off esoteric words like “albescent” and “catechize” with pointed nonchalance, as if to suggest that that’s how he’d talk if you woke him in the middle of the night. Bill O’Reilly wants you to draw the opposite conclusion. He calls himself a bloviator, as Harding did, but rarely uses an SAT word without disavowing it at the same time. “You’re casting aspersions,” he tells Jon Stewart, then adds “big word.” He over-enunciates fancy words like “opine” and “bloviate” itself, with the implication that there would be something genuinely pretentious about saying them straight.
O’Reilly is typical of the modern political bloviators so carried away with their words that they imagine others must be too. Their ranks are thinner than people make them out to be: O’Reilly but not Sean Hannity, Chris Matthews but not Rachel Maddow, Ted Cruz but not Chris Christie, Michael Moore but not Bernie Sanders, “Colbert” but not Colbert.
That’s not to let the others off the hook. The American lexicon is rich with names for hooey and its purveyors: There are “blowhards” and “windbags,” there is “ballyhoo,” “bluster” and “bunkum,” not to mention a less decorous word for nonsense that also begins with a B.
That leaves no shortage of alliterative epithets for Trump: the blustering billionaire, the gassy gazillionaire, the preening plutocrat. (Safire might have said Trump calls for a revival of Mark Twain’s favorite, “blatherskite,” for a “blustering noisy talkative fellow.”)
But if Trump is a bloviator, he’s one who regards words with something between indifference and disdain. He’d never overreach for a fancy word and come up with something like George W. Bush’s “Grecians” or Sarah Palin’s “refudiate.” He’s utterly unself-conscious about his language, and if he has any self-awareness about it, he does a good job of hiding it. The broken sentences, repetitions, false starts and digressions, the banal superlatives and insults —Tremendous! Fabulous! Moron! Loser! — Trump may be sui generis as a candidate, but his language is the culmination of a fixation with the “natural” that has shaped public discourse over the last century. It’s not really public speaking, just a simulation of street-corner schmoozing, which is one reason so many people find Trump “real,” “authentic” and even “just like us.”
And yet. The bloviator’s first object is to dazzle himself with his own words, and Trump’s are exactly the simple ones that he wants to hear, particularly when the conversation turns to his favorite subject: “I’m really rich.” “I’m a really smart guy.”
I think of what the psychologist B.F. Skinner said: The reason we boast is to hear someone saying nice things about us.
Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist, teaches at UC Berkeley’s School of Information.