The death of a public figure is always marked by a respectful reflection which highlights the strengths and weaknesses of a career lived in the public eye. The announcement of the death of Margaret Thatcher on Monday 8th April was no exception. On Tuesday 9th April, the newspapers were full of comment and interpretation of a political life that changed British society – and that is something that all commentators can agree on, whatever their political position
This word cloud is made from the language being used by journalists and commentators, friends, colleagues and members of the public in remembering Margaret Thatcher. Inevitably, she has been remembered for her ‘firsts’: first woman leader of a party; first woman Prime Minister; longest serving twentieth century prime minister; and the only British Prime Minister to have a new word created based on her name. This is an example of derivation by affixation: the proper noun Thatcher + the Greek suffix –ism (‘one who believes in’) i.e. Thatcherism – ‘the policies and style of government associated with Margaret Thatcher’.
For linguists, the language of remembrance is a rich field. Collecting the media sound-bites used to pay tribute to Margaret Thatcher reveals a distinctive grammatical structure: noun phrases focus attention on her qualities as a leader, as a prime minister, as a ‘historical’ figure and as a woman; the pre- and post-modification allows contributors to express their attitude.
So where to start?
Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister
a remarkable Prime Minister
John Major, former Prime Minister (Conservative)
a truly formidable Prime Minister
Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland (Scottish National Party)
… Prime Minister for a long time. Honour that.
Clare Short, former International Development Secretary (Labour)
the most rottenest Prime Minister ever
Member of the public
These noun phrases tell us as much about the contributors as they do about Margaret Thatcher. The Conservative John Major uses the positive evaluative adjective remarkable (denotation: deserving of notice or comment – and thus striking or singular), while the Scottish Nationalist Alex Salmond chooses formidable (denotation: causing fear or alarm; inspiring dread or apprehension). At first glance, this adjective appears to be positive, and yet has layers of meaning which undercut our initial impression – intensified by the adverb of degree truly, the implicitly negative effect is amplified.
The member of the public is more explicit – he does not need to dress his attitude in respectful tones. The double superlative (most rottenest) and the emphatic adverb ever clearly indicate that this voter is not a Conservative supporter. The Labour MP Clare Short opts to comment on Thatcher’s length of service in the post-modifying prepositional phrase for a long time. This allows her to side-step the need to reflect positively on a controversial right wing Prime Minister. Her imperative (Honour that.), however, implicitly suggests that there is nothing else worth praising.
Margaret Thatcher as a leader
a strong leader
David Cameron, Prime Minister (Conservative)
a fearless leader
Bill Clinton, former President of the US (Democrat)
an inspirational leader who carried high the banner of her convictions, and whose principles in the end helped shape a better, freer world
George W. Bush, former President of the US (Republican)
a great leader
Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel (right wing Likud party)
We may expect comments about leadership to be less party-political, but the positive pre-modifying adjectives strong and great are chosen by people who will, at least to some extent, share Thatcher’s right wing principles. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, describes her using the broad evaluative adjective fearless. Because its connotations depend on context, this adjective is ambiguous. It could seen as ‘feint praise’ – while apparently praising her decisiveness, he may also be criticising what is sometimes seen as her political ruthlessness.
The tone of the long pre- and post-modified noun phrase is very positive. The connotations of the adjective inspirational and the abstract nouns principle, confidence and clarity explicitly suggest that Margaret Thatcher’s leadership qualities are exceptional. As a Republican, George W. Bush can identify with Thatcher’s right wing politics.
Margaret Thatcher as a figurehead
a towering political figure
Tony Blair, former Prime Minister (Labour)
a unique figure
Ed Miliband, Leader of the Opposition (Labour)
a landmark political figure
Charles Kennedy, former leader of the Liberal Democrat Party
The contributors here do not share Thatcher’s political views and while their comments are respectful, they lack the effusive tone of George W. Bush. The pre-modifiers are less personal: the adjective unique, the verb modifier towering and the noun landmark suggest the scale of Thatcher’s achievements while keeping a suitable political distance. The choice of words is diplomatic.
As a woman who …
… saved the country she loved and fought for so tirelessly
… tore Britain apart
… transformed life in this country, profoundly, permanently and through sheer force of personality
… divided a nation
… changed Britain
Many of the newspapers used a post modified noun phrase A woman who … to comment on Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, either as the front page headline or in the report itself.
All we need to do here is to read the verbs. In the post-modifying relative clauses, they tell a complete story. The right wing press choose past tense verbs with positive connotations – saved, transformed (reinforced in this case by the strong connotations of the adverbs profoundly/permanently and the prepositional phrase through sheer force of personality). The left wing press choose verbs with negative connotations – tore apart, divided. The Independent, living up to its name, chooses the neutral verb changed.
As a person
a terrific person to spend time socially with
Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury
a very, very kindly lady
Local Conservative Party member
a far more caring and modest person in retirement than you get from those sort of clips
Baroness Anne Jenkin of Kennington, House of Lords (Conservative)
The people who have commented on Thatcher in a more personal way are those who have a different kind of relationship – these are people who interacted with her in social contexts. The language is almost homely, describing an individual quite removed from the public ‘figurehead’. The adjectives terrific and kindly have a slightly dated feel, and there is a warm enthusiasm in Lord Carey’s choice of adjective and in the repetition of the degree adverb very.
Baroness Jenkin bridges the gap between the two representations of Margaret Thatcher. The pre-modifiers, the comparative compound adjectives more caring and modest, mirror the warmth and familiarity of Lord Carey and the local Conservative Party lady, while the degree adverb far intensifies the positive connotations. The post-modifying comparative clause, on the other hand, sets personal experience against media representation – it suggests that the ‘Margaret Thatcher’ Lady Jenkin knew was not the same as the one the media dubbed ‘The Iron Lady’ and the ‘Milk-Snatcher’.
Amongst the praise and celebration, the diplomacy and the delicately worded epithets, there were some explicitly negative responses. These were, however, not noun phrases that commented directly on Margaret Thatcher as a politician or as a private individual. Recognising that her family will be grieving, the criticisms focus instead on Thatcher’s record, on the political legacy she left behind. For Neil Kinnock, former Labour leader, her time in 10 Downing Street was an unmitigated disaster; for a resident in her old Finchley constituency, she destroyed the infrastructure of our society and created a consumer-based generation; for the Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, she did great hurt to Irish people.
When a public figure dies, particularly in the case of a politician like Margaret Thatcher who evokes such strong emotions, a private and personal loss becomes public property. What we can see in the examples quoted here are people paying tribute to the life of someone they admire, people treading a delicate line between political judgement and diplomatic reflection, and people rejoicing in a friendship.
Some useful links for further language study:
[I should perhaps point out that the ‘readings’ expressed here are my own and that the people cited have in no way endorsed my interpretation of their words.]