THE BLOG
10/24/2012 12:21 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2012

Word Choice and the Debates

Not since Bill Clinton questioned the meaning of "is" has a single phrase been parsed as much as Mitt Romney's "binders full of women" uttered in the last presidential debate. Language has played a pivotal role in politics and in the courtroom, as a prosecutor I know this all too well. Language is a powerful weapon in court and can be pivotal in swaying the case. An effective orator can move minds and hearts in the courtroom, to the point that even the facts might be overlooked.

In my book The Humanity of Justice: Lighting Even the Darkest Path Toward Justice, I write:

Anyone who's ever doubted the importance of language should consider this true story. It was handed down to me through my family and involves one of history's most celebrated slices of verbal phrasing. Like many creative discoveries, this one happened largely by accident.

It was summertime in Farmingdale, N.J., and the year was 1935. My grandfather English Strunsky and my great uncle Ira Gershwin were having a chat about English's business. Ira, being a notorious inquisitor (most likely in search of new material), was pelting away at my grandfather: Questions flew one after the other. Since my grandfather's trade involved making ketchup, chili sauce, and tomato juice, Ira couldn't resist asking him where he got all those tomatoes.

Ira Gershwin, you may already know, was a famed and respected lyricist for more than five decades. He and his brother, composer George Gershwin, co-wrote a dozen-plus Broadway shows, along with some of the most indelible tunes in American music.

As English proceeded to share his sources of those herbaceous fruits disguised as vegetables, an annoyed look crossed Ira's face. My grandfather pretended not to notice. After all, what could be wrong? They were just a couple of friendly fellows discussing tomatoes. Confounded, Ira finally interjected, "English, why do you keep saying, 'tuh-may-tohs'? My wife calls 'em 'tuh-mah-tohs'!"

English shot a look at his talented brother-in-law. "Ira, what do you think would happen if I said 'tuh-mah-toh' to the farmers I work with? They wouldn't know what the hell I was talking about! So since I'm used to being around them, I say 'tuh-may-toh.'"

Of course, little did either of them realize that a seed of musical history had just sprouted. Ira would later coin the famous verse, "You like tuh-may-tohs and I like tuh-mah-tohs" as part of the Gershwin brothers' hit song "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off." Today, it stands as one of the greatest tunes ever recorded and one of the top movie songs of all time. Legendary performers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Armstrong have helped keep that little number in widespread circulation, to the point where its lyrics have practically become household expressions.

There could be a million reasons why that song catapulted to the top. But I suspect it had a lot to do with the playfulness of the lyrics and how people could relate to the variations of verbal expression. Most of us intuitively grasp that words, and how we use them, comprise a huge part of our reality. We can see that the difference between the two ways of saying "tomato" speaks to distinctions in social class, region, dialect, taste, and style. So the more we consider the vital and deeply embedded role that language plays within our own psyches, and our interactions with others, the more we recognize it as something far greater than a mere functional, communicative tool of life. I am honored that my father, Michael Strunsky works tirelessly everyday to protect and promote the legacy of these lyrics as the trustee of Ira Gershwin's estate.

Language has taken its rightful place as an essential building block to civilization.

Therefore, just as the meaning of "is" and "tomato" has left historical impressions on the meaning of words to our society, Romney's "binders full of women" will continue to be debated throughout the presidential election and time beyond. This very phrase could change the outcome of the election, just as it would a legal case. Women make up a high percent of the number of registered voters in the United States and if Romney were to lose this percent due to his this phrase, it would similar to defense losing the jury on a pivotal case. "Binders full of women" was used in reference to how Romney finds females for his Cabinet, known for lacking female and minority representation. This being said, my grandfather knew that his word choice of "tuh-may-toh" made all the difference in the world to his relationship with the farmers.