Period. Full stop.
President Barack Obama’s emphatic punctuation of his promise yesterday that the U.S. will always act to return American soldiers held in captivity is the new jargon among American executives. Variations have shown up in dozens of recent earnings calls, State Department briefings and other forums where leaders want to end any question of commitment.
In early May alone, Frontier Communications Corp. Chief Financial Officer John Jureller used it to talk about Internet prices, New Mountain Finance Corp. Chief Executive Officer Robert Hamwee pulled out the phrase to punctuate a financial commitment and First Capital Realty Inc. CEO Dori Joseph Segal leaned on “full stop” to cement his promise to focus the next three years on “growing our Ebitda.”
On May 8, it was invoked to emphasize the importance of a college education during a hearing of the House Education and Workforce Committee about unionizing student athletes.
“There’s a lot of emotional energy in that phrase,” said L.J. Rittenhouse, CEO of Rittenhouse Rankings Inc., which works with companies to better execute strategies through communication. “It’s another way of saying, ‘This is the end of the story and don’t ask any more questions.’”
The etymology of the term is murky, with many references to the first usages coming in the 1500s with the advent of the printing press and the need for punctuation to denote the end of a sentence. Some suggest even deeper roots back to the biblical Gospels and the Latin “punctus,” as a rhetorical device for having the final word.
One famous use was from Shakespeare in “The Merchant of Venice” as an enjoinder to “come to the point,” said Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley and author of the book “The Linguistics of Punctuation.”
It’s used more widely now to mean “There’s an end to it” or “This is not up for discussion,” said Nunberg, who also contributes to a radio program on National Public Radio about language.
In the late 1800s until the emergence of the word processor, business people would dictate letters to their secretaries directly or via recordings, and such spoken punctuation as “period” or “full stop” was necessary to make the end of the sentence clear.
In its most modern form, Apple Inc.’s Siri and Google Inc.’s Android voice-recognition software will create a period at the end of a sentence in response to both “period” or “full stop.”
“Businessmen kind of stopped doing it a few decades ago,” Nunberg said. “Now it may be, with Siri and other transcription apps, they’re getting into the habit of doing it again.”
Obama used the lexicon in Poland, in response to a question about the decision to bargain with the Taliban in Afghanistan for the release of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. The controversy over Obama’s decision to trade five Taliban inmates at Guantanamo Bay for Bergdahl has meant the phrase was repeated more often as commentary heaped upon dissection of the move.
“But let me just make a very simple point here, and that is regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop,” Obama said, according to a transcript.
It wasn’t the first time the phrase colored the Gitmo issue. Marc Thiessen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, gave it a run during an April 22 speech as part of the Council on Foreign Relations discussion about the future of those very prisoners, and others, at Guantanamo Bay.
“We do not interrogate terrorists any more. Period. Full stop,” Thiessen said, according to the transcript of that discussion.
It was also added for emphasis in the last month on conference calls for software maker Autodesk Inc., ICAP Plc, the world’s largest inter-dealer broker, and oil and gas industry supplier Franks International NV. And even Obama has shown a past affinity for the term.
“Black or white, man or woman, urban, rural, rich, poor, Native American, disabled, gay, straight, Republican or Democrat -- voters who want to vote should be able to vote. Period. Full stop,” the president said in an April 11 speech at the National Action Network annual convention in New York City, talking about voting rights. He used it again in December to talk about Iran and enrichment of uranium.
Like “You can take it to the bank” and other cliches that no longer carry enough gravitas to capture the final point, catch phrases tend to spread and then be replaced, said Nunberg.
“The language of corporate communications is not known for its originality,” he said. “Someone says it on Monday and it’s ubiquitous on Tuesday.”
Period. Just stop.