Want to track the life and death of a bogus political narrative? Look to the words.
This year, one word in particular: acuity.
You heard this $5 word a lot in 2020. As critics of President-elect Joe Biden sought to cast doubt on whether he had the mental fitness for the job, mainstream and fringe media alike loved to talk about his acuity, defined as “keenness of perception.” When you look up a word on Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, the site automatically selects recent examples of the word’s usage from news on the web; in a search this week for acuity, five of the eight examples cited Biden. It’s currently in the top 2% of words looked up on the site.
A scientific approach presents an even starker case that the word’s fate was tied to Biden’s. The NOW (News on the Web) Corpus is a database of 11.4 billion words from web-based newspapers from 2010 to the present. From 2016 through February 2020, usage of acuity was mostly flat, averaging just under three news article appearances per day.
Then on Feb. 29, Biden won the South Carolina primary, vaulting him to the front of the Democratic field. In March, appearances of acuity jumped to 4.2 times per day.
On June 5, Biden clinched the Democratic nomination for president. For the rest of that month, appearances of acuity surged to 6.6 per day.
And they increased steadily: July (7.3 appearances per day), August (8.1), and peaking in September (10.6). Searches for the word on Google followed almost identical patterns.
What was going on?
You wouldn’t know this if you read only The Philadelphia Inquirer, but over the spring and summer, right-wing media aggressively pushed a narrative that Biden wasn’t entirely with it. Even mainstream media, while not necessarily buying into the story line, commented on the fact that Biden’s mental acuity was continually being questioned by the right. As the former vice president’s campaign was largely confined to computer screens and the candidate had limited public appearances, plenty of Fox News, Newsmax, and One America News Network viewers were prepped for a catatonic Joe Biden to be wheeled onto the Sept. 29 debate stage on a gurney.
That didn’t happen. The first debate came and went, and Biden did fine. His performance effectively neutered the mental acuity story line — and the proof is in the data.
After that Sept. 29 appearance, usage of acuity plummeted. In October, the word made just 5.3 appearances per day in the NOW Corpus — half its prevalence in September. November saw it fall even further, to 4.1 appearances per day — below where it was in March.
By tracking the usage of a single word, we could see the real-time sputtering and disappearance of one of Trump’s key narratives — and arguably his reelection hopes. When Biden critics could no longer plausibly question his mental acuity, they had little use for the word anymore.
Of course, when one false narrative dies, another swoops in to take its place. From the last week of October to the first week of November, Google searches for the word fraud jumped 296%.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take acuity to understand what that’s about.
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 anaphorics to firstname.lastname@example.org.