Big Bird. Binders. “A bunch of stuff.” Another Internet meme has joined the slew spawned by the election. But this time, unlike the Irish “malarkey,” it’s got a Jewish ethnic angle.
Mitt Romney used the word “tumult” several times in Monday night’s debate to refer to the results of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East, appropriately stirring up a storm of discussion online and in traditional media.
In fact, tumult both sounds like and shares a Latin root with the Yiddish words “tumul,” or noise, and “tummler,” a kind of prototypical master of ceremonies who would keep an audience’s energy up, according to the Yiddish mavens at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. In Latin, “tumultus” was an uproar, bustle, storm or panic.
The debate was held in Boca Raton, Fla., home to a considerable Jewish population. Was Romney subtly pandering to Jews? Was his use of tumult a kind of dog whistle, meant to send a special message to those who vote in the crucial swing state of Florida?
Both credentialed and citizen journalists thought so.
On public television, New York magazine political writer John Heileman opined that Romney must have thought tumult was a Jewish word, while in the Twittersphere, numerous viewers said the same thing.
“Mitt uses the words ‘Israel’ & ‘Tumult’ more than my jewish grandmother ever did … he really wants that jewish vote!” @loriftv chimed in.
Whatever its etymology, the recurrence of the word during the debate was no coincidence, said Jacques Berlinerblau, director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and author of the recent book “How To Be Secular.”
“There’s a famous rule of three,” he said. “If someone uses the same odd semantic word more than two times in a presidential debate, it was placed there on purpose.”
“Tumult,” along with “horses and bayonets” (Obama’s comeback to Romney’s charge that the Navy had fewer ships now than in 1916) was one of evening’s the most-tweeted locutions, hitting a peak of more than 600 times per hour during the debate according to the Twitter analytics site, hashtags.org. As of press time, it was still going strong.
“Romney was trying to sketch a picture of an Obama foreign policy that was in complete disarray,” said Berlinerblau. “American Jews like order. … I think he gets at a Jewish fear of things getting out of control. Jews have been on the receiving end of non-orderly nation-states.”