What the Fuzz? Unpacking the folksy rhetoric of the Comey testimony

What the Fuzz? Unpacking the folksy rhetoric of the Comey testimony
James Comey
Source: Alex Brandon/AP
James Comey
Source: Alex Brandon/AP

Lordy, what a hearing!

Former FBI Director James Comey's Thursday testimony may have been on a gravely serious matter — whether President Donald Trump tried to strong-arm Comey into easing off the bureau's investigations into Trump's possible ties to Russia — but the language Comey used was downright down-home.

He evinced a relaxed, open and folksy style during his hours of grilling by the Senate Intelligence Committee, and it may have paid off.

"The danger to speaking in very professional — kind of for lack of a better word, boring — language is that people won't listen or it won't convey the kind of effect that someone wants it to convey," Costas Panagopoulos, professor of political science and director of Fordham University's Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy, said in an interview.

"It'll be easily dismissed, whereas if you speak in a way that ordinary people will understand and tune into, you have a better shot of getting your point across," said Panagopoulos, who said he found the colloquial manner of the testimony compelling.

When Comey said of a social media threat from Trump, "I've seen the tweet about tapes. Lordy, I hope there are tapes," chuckles rolled through the hearing room. Comey's questioner, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) nodded and smiled receptively.

According to Panagopoulos, Comey seemed intent to "interject some informality in the process so that it doesn't come across as totally robotic, [which is] also a way of humanizing himself and showing that he's just like everybody else."

For example, Comey insisted he was "so stunned" by Trump's dealings with him that he didn't initially react (a comment for which he took some heat from the right). The claim, Panagopoulos said, was an attempt to bolster his argument that "he's an average person, and right now a private citizen, and he reacted to things and interpreted things in a way that reflected not only his professional position as former director of the FBI but also as an ordinary human being."

"I think he was trying to walk a tightrope between his professional role as director of the FBI and and and his humanity," Panagopoulos added.

Comey's down-home verbal stylings didn't go unnoticed by viewers.

Ears perked up at his repeated use of "fuzz," a soft word he chose over harder options like "obfuscation" or "confusion." One observer chose to interpret Comey's use of "no fuzz" as saying a "high-confidence judgment" about the likelihood that Russia tried to tip the scales in the 2016 race for president.

Another of Comey's lines — that providing information to reporters was akin to "feeding seagulls at the beach" — was vivid enough to ramp up the Twitter machine anew:

NPR Congressional reporter Scott Detrow said the station went so far as to issue a memo on the acceptable spelling of "lordy":

And Merriam-Webster, a power player in discussions of modern-day political prose (and trolling), got in on the act as well:

One of the dictionary's writers wryly tweeted, "All we need is a 'land's sakes!' for the Folksy Grandma Trifecta":

Still, some pundits seemed to think Comey might be too cute by half:

Comey wasn't the only one to paint a word picture during the hearing: Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) got some attention for alluding to the question of "whose political ox is being gored."

(Of course, not all of Comey's lines were mid-century American: He went straight-up medieval with a reference to Henry II's question, "Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?")

George Washington University associate professor of media and public affairs David Karpf argued that, ultimately, Comey's testimony was a chance to reinforce his image as an "independent man" who, regardless of his partisan surrounds, is "frustrating in his principles." And his word choice served to further that purpose.

"The things like the 'lordy' and the 'fuzz on it,' that augments it," Karpf said. "If he was using that language, but also going hard to one side, then I think that language would be viewed more as a put-on or an affectation as opposed to just the way the guy talks."

Former FBI Director James Comey
Source: Alex Brandon/AP

Some of the phrasing from the day may have sounded like an extreme throwback (read: ox goring), but Karpf said considering the surrounds, that wasn't so surprising: "The Senate is a rich old white man club, and rich old white men clubs talk in ways that to the rest of the world sound incredibly dated, because they weren't so incredibly dated back when they were all coming up."

Karpf went on: "What'll be interesting is like, 40 years from now, if the U.S. government is still standing and all, it's entirely possible that the rich old white men in the Senate then will be talking about dank memes."

Comey's talk got attention. But whether it keeps him out of the woods, or puts the president deeper into them, Lordy only knows.