Need an effective cultural campaign slogan? Try some grammatical trickery. Change a part of speech, and you’ll be surprised how quickly your choice of words can catch on.
Witness the recent adoption of decrying cancel culture as a rallying point. “One of [the left’s] political weapons is ‘cancel culture’ — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees,” Donald Trump said in last week’s campaign event at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. “This is the very definition of totalitarianism.”
I hope you like the phrase, because we’re about to hear a lot more of it over the coming months. In the few days since Trump’s speech, publicly lamenting “cancel culture” has become the favored talking point among right-wing politicians, media figures, and acolytes including Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn, former Florida Congressman Allen West, Fox News analyst Howard Kurtz, conservative podcast hosts Allie Beth Stuckey and Ben Shapiro, and South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg.
Vox writer Aja Romano traces what’s possibly the first usage of cancel in this context to the 1991 film New Jack City, when Wesley Snipes’ Nino Brown dumps his girlfriend by saying, “Cancel that b----. I’ll buy another one.” Almost 30 years later, the phrase cancel culture is comprehensible for thousands of Trump supporters in South Dakota.
What makes a phrase like cancel culture stick? In short, messing with parts of speech, turning cancel into an adjective.
The word cancel has verb and noun definitions in the dictionary, but nothing as an adjective. In this sense cancel culture is something of a neologism, creating new meaning — one that’s easily understandable — out of older words. It’s a nifty trick that makes our brains sit up and take notice — and while we’re paused on the phrase, it lodges itself in our minds. The words get stickier, which is exactly what a good slogan or rallying cry should be.
Some of the most famous marketing slogans in history played the same cards. Remember Apple’s famous “Think different” campaign: Your brain is expecting “Think differently,” but when you encounter an adjective instead of an adverb, you pause, dwell and then buy an iMac. Same story with IBX’s “Live fearless,” which is equally wrong. (For those craving the grammatical deep cuts: No, neither of these is an example of a linking verb, which would make kosher the adjectives fearless and different. In this context they are action verbs, and they’re wrong.) Or the famous “Got milk?” campaign: You probably never considered that it should have asked, “Have milk?” But if it had, your bones might be brittler today.
The subliminal grammatical sleight of hand is also an effective distraction when you’re guilty of doing the same thing you accuse others of. There’s plenty of irony in Trump calling out cancel culture when, for 14 seasons as host of The Apprentice, he swiftly canceled hundreds of contestants with his most famous catchphrase, “You’re fired.” And in separate articles this week, the Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell and CNN’s Daniel Dale chronicled the many times that Donald Trump has recommended cancellation of everything from NBC to Joe Scarborough to Karl Rove to Apple.
How’s that for thinking different?
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and predicate adjectives to firstname.lastname@example.org.