Words Words Words – Word Challenge Pt II: bona fide!


This week’s word is brought to you by President William Howard Taft and arguably (ostensibly?) one of his favorite musicians ever, M.I.A. The 15th president and the songstress found the beauty of the English language in the use of bona fide. And while they each used it in very different contexts, they both used it to convey a context that almost no other word can capture and used it to increase the fluidity, brevity, and aptness of their statements.

Here’s an excerpt from Mr. Taft:

Howard Taft – Inaugural Address
March 4, 1909

The policy of the United States in the Spanish war and since has given it a position of influence among the nations that it never had before, and should be constantly exerted to securing to its bona fide citizens, whether native or naturalized, respect for them as such in foreign countries. We should make every effort to prevent humiliating and degrading prohibition against any of our citizens wishing temporarily to sojourn in foreign countries because of race or religion.

This excerpt solidifies and confirms for me the need for a well-developed vocabulary. Depending on your political views, and what you’ve heard of President Taft, there are a lot of ways to interpret the meaning of bona fide and those interpretations may change our perception of his ultimate intent. As I read this excerpt, I am not sure whether he is speaking of immigrants or perhaps speaking of citizens with a particular character trait, because the context doesn’t allow me to draw a conclusion. The lack of understanding of his use of bona fide might lead me to not vote for Mr. Taft next time he runs for office.Since it’s my responsibility as a citizen of a democracy to make sure I make informed decision when evaluating candidates (though if Taft were a candidate now, I would not vote for him simply because he would be a member of the Zombie Party and I don’t support the brain eating practices of the undead), it’s clear I need to make sure I understand what these folks are saying, and know the definition of the words they are using, before casting my ballot.

Ms A. (I don’t know her well enough to call her M.), on the other hand, gives us this lovely verse:

M.I.A., “Paper Planes”

The lyrics:

Sometimes I feel sitting on trains
Every stop I get to I’m clocking that game
Everyone’s a winner now we’re making our fame
Bona fide hustler, making my name

This gives us a little more information than Taft does about the definition of bona-fide, but there is still some ambiguity here that the context doesn’t quite eliminate.

As we can see above, words are used and reused in everything from great speeches to catchy tunes so having a robust vocabulary is important to understand both, and it’s not always possible to understand a word from its context. One of the great benefits of the internet is the opportunity to easily access lyrics to songs and look up the meanings of words you don’t know. I hope all the readers of this will consider the next time you hear M.I.A. use a word you’re not sure of.  Ignoring the meaning of that word or trying to figure it out just from context might make you join the Zombie Taft for President campaign and if that happens it might be the end of democracy as we know it.

The final lesson that we can draw from the use of these words is a lesson in reading comprehension. Not knowing the meaning of a word might make us unsure as to whether M.I.A claims to be a tough hustler, a busy hustler, a train-riding hustler, game playing hustler, or a real hustler and it might make us think that Zombie Taft only supports “real” citizens. Imagine that either of these two uses of bona fide could make their way to a reading passage on the SSAT, ISEE, SHSAT, SAT, ACT, GMAT, GRE, or any other of the myriad of tests that we’re subjected to on the way from 3rd grade to our doctorate. If you don’t know the meaning of the word bona fide you could end up with no degree, thinking that M.I.A. is a train-riding hustler in a country presided over by a Zombie Taft.

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