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'Obamacare' Sounds Different When Supporters Say It

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Until recently, "Obamacare" was a word mostly used by opponents of President Obama's health care law. Now, supporters of the law are attempting to claim it as their own.

During the three days of health care hearings, protesters outside of the Supreme Court in favor of the law returned to one chant more than any other: "We love Obamacare."

The phrase was not somebody's impromptu brainstorm on the steps of the Supreme Court. People carried mass-printed black-and-yellow signs that said it in big, bold letters.

"My daughter was a 24-year-old who was without health care, was put back on my plan, and luckily she did because she tore her ACL playing soccer and needed surgery, so she was covered for her insurance," says Alan Perigoy, who was handing out granola bars. "So I'm happy to have the Obamacare. That's why I'm here supporting it."

He says his use of the word "Obamacare" is "very appropriate."

"Well, Obama does care, as he said recently," he says. "It's not pejorative at all. It's a wonderful thing."

A GOP Tag Line

It sure was pejorative for a while. During the 2009 health care debate in Congress, the word was almost exclusively used by Republicans. Obamacare became shorthand for big, bad government. By 2010, the word was all over Republican TV ads.

This year on the Republican presidential campaign, Mitt Romney and the other candidates have learned that one of the biggest applause lines in any stump speech is: "If I'm president, I'm going to get rid of Obamacare on Day 1."

The term echoes "Hillarycare," the word Republicans used to describe the Clinton health care plan in the early '90s.

It doesn't help Democrats that this law's real name is a mouthful. "The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

Early on, the White House didn't want to adopt the word Obamacare. It was trying to win over Republicans. The message was that universal health care is bigger than one man.

But over time it became clear: The word was not going away. At a speech in Atlanta earlier this month, Obama embraced it.

"You want to call it Obamacare? That's OK, because I do care," he said. "That's why we passed it."

He made a similar point all the way back in August: "If the other side wants to be the folks who don't care, that's fine with me," he said.

On the second anniversary of the law last week, the Obama re-election campaign set up a webpage that says, "I Like Obamacare." It is selling buttons, T-shirts and bumper stickers with that message.

Turning Terms Around

Linguist Ben Zimmer, executive producer of Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com, says there's a long history of groups trying to reclaim negative words.

"So for instance, the term 'queer,' which is a very pejorative term, in fact was reclaimed by members of the gay community as a neutral or positive term," he says, "to the extent that now you have queer studies at universities, for instance."

In politics, he says, whether a term is positive or negative often hinges on outside events.

"During Ronald Reagan's first term, 'Reaganomics' was generally a negative epithet," he says, "but by 1984, the economy had turned around, and Ronald Reagan in fact embraced the term 'Reaganomics.' "

So whether "Obamacare" has a bright future or not may depend less on the people shouting the word on the Supreme Court steps and more on the folks deliberating inside that white marble building.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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