By Ann McFeatters
WASHINGTON ― It turns out that the one-syllable expression "huh?" is universally understood, no matter the continent, the country or the culture.
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands said that even "mama" doesn't translate as widely as everyman's "Huh?"
While linguists ponder the wonder of this, it occurs to us that politicians across the globe have come up with universal phrases that everyone everywhere understands.
For example, there is the ubiquitous, "I'll have to get back to you on that," which obviously means, "I haven't a clue what this is all about or what I am supposed to say. I need my people to brief me. Help me out here, people."
Then there is, "I am resigning to spend more time with my family." This is the accepted phrasing for "I really, really messed up and nobody will look me in the eye again so I have to go home where they have to take you in no matter what you have done."
And who hasn't snickered at "We had a frank and candid discussion with the president." It needs no explanation that this means "we absolutely couldn't agree on a single thing and the old muttonhead is so stubborn he won't give us the time of day."
A personal favorite is "We have come across a few irregularities but nothing that can't be straightened out." We know from recent experience that this means, "Corruption! You want to talk about corruption! We found it up to our eyeballs. But, legally, we haven't got a smoking gun so nobody's going to jail."
Speaking of guns, American politicians who have blocked gun-control legislation no matter how many mass murders are spawned in this country routinely say such things about guns as "They are used to defend our property and our families and our faith and our freedom, and they are absolutely essential to living the way God intended for us to live." What they are really saying is "I can't possibly get reelected unless I say 10 times a day how outraged I am that there is anyone who doesn't want people walking around buying and carrying guns 24/7."
Innumerable times on the floors of the House or Senate we hear: "I would like to associate myself with the remarks of my worthy colleague." What we are really being told is "I am too lazy to write my own remarks, but if I don't support Joe's bill, he won't support mine."
How many times we have heard this one: "We must support the family; we must shore up the family; the family is all-important." What is meant is this: "If I say enough times how much I support families, nobody will notice that I propose cutting food stamps, health care, after-school programs, pre-school programs and funding for family services."
In campaign season we can't turn on TV without hearing, "I have traveled across this great country and listened to the people and they are begging me to run to help take back this country and make it great again." That means, "I have enough people willing to donate to my campaign because they believe as I do that there is too much regulation on business and that rich people who make a lot of money are unfairly targeted by tax collectors. Besides, I don't have anything better to do."
The current mantra on the right side of the aisle is this: "Government isn't going to help you get ahead. It's going to hold you back." What that really says is, "You're on your own, sucker. Forget about clean air and water and housing subsidies and affordable college loans and Head Start and toxic dump cleanup and consumer protection and help for disabled veterans."
So then you hear politicians ranting about the $17 trillion national debt that amounts to $53,000 owed per person, and your response is "Huh?"
Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. Email email@example.com.