Donald Trump rallies in Norfolk
A supporter for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump wears regalia at a rally on October 31, 2015 in Norfolk, Virginia. Sara D. Davis & Getty Images

What the Words Used to Describe Clinton and Trump Supporters Really Mean

Nov 08, 2016
Ideas
Katy Steinmetz is TIME's San Francisco Bureau Chief, covering news and ideas in the American West. In addition to writing features for TIME and TIME.com, she pens a column on language and organizes the occasional spelling bee.

One presidential candidate has supporters that are more likely to be described as "high-profile" allies, while another has fans that are more often described as "passionate."

If it is even remotely hard for you to guess which is which, then congratulations on somehow avoiding the political dryer cycle the rest of us have been in, smacking around like shoes on a high-heat setting.

And even if it isn't, the descriptors most closely associated with Trumpers and Clintonites are worth a look.

The adjectives came to TIME courtesy of Oxford Dictionaries, which collects about 150 million words of published text each month in their attempt to keep track of English and how it's changing. The collection, dating from 2012 to the present, is known as the New Monitor Corpus, and in total it contains about 7 billion words from sources like blogs, journals and, of course, mainstream media outlets.

Though Oxford's editors often analyze it to see what new words are bubbling up in the zeitgeist, they can query it in loads of ways—like asking what words writers tend to use right before a noun like "Trump supporter" or "Clinton supporter."

Trump supporters, it turns out, are more likely to be hard-core. Clinton supporters are more likely to be staunch. Trump supporters are more likely to be angry and fervent. Clinton supporters are more likely be longtime and prominent. Trump supporters are more likely to be vocal, while Clinton supporters are more apt to be loyal. (Bernie Sanders supporters, for what it's worth at this point, are more likely to be disaffected, disgruntled and disappointed.)

The words reflect some of the race's biggest narrative contrasts on their face: Clinton is the old, Trump is the new. Clinton is a continuation of what has been, Trump is a radical diversion from the past. Clinton is more closely associated with the elite, Trump is more closely associated with fury (towards things that seem or feel elite).

Then there is the subtext. The Clinton words are more buttoned-up, the kind of thing you might see in the program notes for an endowment dedication ceremony, while Donald Trump's could describe a mosh pit.

For example: other words closely associated with Clinton's staunch, per Oxford, include ally, defender and believer. Those associated with the Trump's hard-core include gamer, pornography and carnivore. The Clinton supporter is steady, if unexciting; the Trump supporter is energetic, if unsteady. The world of Clinton is cold, and the universe of Trump is combustible. However true any of that might be, the Oxford words are evidence that this is a narrative media outlets helped ingrain on the adjectival level.

Some of those words are more loaded than others. Passionate became a controversial descriptor after two Trump supporters beat up a homeless Hispanic man last year and Trump in part responded by saying "the people that are following me are very passionate." (He later on described the attack as "terrible.") Pundits questioned whether the word was becoming a dangerous euphemism this election cycle. "When Trump’s supporters are described as 'passionate,' that’s political code for 'angry' and 'frustrated,'" a Tufts University politics professor wrote, "and 'occasionally prone to acts of racist violence.'"

It's also a good word for simply explaining that some people really, really dig Trump. And, if we consult the pages of Oxford's dictionary, it may also be the best single word to sum up what we've learned, or relearned, about Americans this year. We are susceptible and often readily swayed by passions or emotions. We are easily moved to strong feeling. We are of changeable mood, volatile. We do things in vehement and heartfelt ways. We are dominated by intense anger but also intense love.

Rough and tumble as it has been, here's to finally finding out where that passion took us this year.


Ideas
TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.
TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.