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The Total Tell

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in WashingtonI have totally been thinking about this word.

No, that’s not true. I have been thinking about many other things: midterm grades, spring allergies, whether to freeze half the massive pot of chili I cooked last night, how proud I am of my March-blooming orchid. But in informal parlance, totally simply supplies emphasis. It’s not normal for a person to spend much time mulling over a single adverb; the space it’s taking up in my brain is surprisingly large. Hence, totally; or, were I under 35, like, totally. Its use as an intensifier, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, appeared first in writing in the early 1970s, as in the advertisement for Screw magazine that promised “a totally dominant English massage by a lovely female, in your home or office.” I associate it with the kind of stoner language popularized by Cheech & Chong, though I suspect the one-word answer, “Totally!” denoting agreement, didn’t appear until later.

I’m thinking about the word, though, not as a persistent artifact from my youth, but as what Maggie Haberman of The New York Times calls a “tell.” Specifically, she points to a White House statement accompanying the partial release of the President’s 2005 federal tax return, in anticipation of its being aired publicly on The Rachel Maddow Show just last week. The statement reads, in part, “Despite this substantial income figure and tax paid, it is totally illegal to steal and publish tax returns.” (Of course, there’s more to complain about, in this sentence, than the word totally; for instance, how the illegality of leaking a tax form is “despite” the grand sums listed thereon remains opaque. But that’s a subject for another day.) According to Haberman, Trump himself probably added the intensifier totally, which is hardly necessary to the claim:

That is, stealing and publishing tax returns is either legal or illegal (I vote for the latter). I suspect Haberman assigns totally to Trump’s lexicon because he can hardly utter a sentence without intensifiers. Things are rarely beautiful without being very, very beautiful, rarely great without being truly great. Intensifiers have been, well, intensifying for some time, but Trump stands apart in his effervescent use of them.

But there’s more, I think, to totally. Most people who came of age when the word was on the rise in informal language use it with a twist of irony, perhaps not quite as mockingly as they would use the word groovy, but with a nod to the juvenilia it represents. Or it might be self-effacing, as in Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s response to receiving a Best Work of Fiction award from the Texas Institute of Letters: “So I guess it’s not totally horrible what I’m doing.” There are also subtle differences in the placement of totally. “I totally understand the argument” comes across as slang; “I understand the total argument” or “I understand the argument totally,” not such much. In “I totally don’t want to do it,” the word functions as a synonym for really or truly.

So what of Haberman’s claim? In the context of a formal White House press release, as The Washington Post points out, the word is unusual. It fits with Trump’s widespread use of intensifiers, uttered as though nothing merits discussion unless it admits of grandiosity, superfluity, the extraordinary. And it fits with the phrase in the sentence that follows, dishonest media, that Trump himself is fond of uttering.

But I’ll venture one more idea, for which I have only a hunch. There was a lot of usage, during the era when totally came into informal parlance as an intensifier, that few took seriously and many indulged more whimsically. Beautiful, another of Trump’s favorite modifiers, is an example. So is zero used as an adjective, as in zero tolerance, which first appeared in 1972. Even, in many contexts, the establishment. Seventy is old for a newly elected president, but in some ways, Trump seems a bit older, like someone who picks up on terms like these without quite understanding their context and then proceeds to lard his language with them. That is, totally is probably a “tell,” but of the president’s relationship to informal language generally, not just as an example of his love of intensifiers.

The risk, in many cases, is that the intensifier works as a backfiring mechanism. Claim “totally illegal,” and you’re almost inviting someone to show where something might be legal. “Completely bogus” begins to sounds authentic. And “truly dishonest” might be the last remaining marker of that elusive trait, honesty.

n.b. The president, of course, is not the only media personality fond of totally as an intensifier. Maddow herself, confronted by skeptics of her scoop, allowed that the 2005 return she obtained “totally could’ve come from Trump.”

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