The trouble with bitter
When I heard that Obama had described people in small US towns as being bitter I immediately thought it was an unfortunate word choice and that it was probably something that wouldn’t have happened if he’d been speaking in Spanish.
The problem with bitter is that it’s an adjective that has a sense of permanence about it. It’s like calling people stupid. Other adjectives, like angry or upset, don’t have that sense at all. They’re temporary states.
In Spanish there are two forms of the verb to be (sometimes called the copula), ser and estar. Estar derives from the Vulgar Latin estare, to stand, and is usually used for temporary states. So you might say están enfadados (they are angry), and it’s clear from the verb form that you don’t mean that as a permanent characteristic. You can use ser and estar with the same adjective (e.g., feliz) to give a different sense of temporary / permanent.
You can’t do that in English, though. So we rely on the adjective to carry the sense of permanance. If you say someone is happy, a native speaker will know you mean happy right now, for the time being. If you say someone is friendly, you know it is a permanent characteristic.
Bitter is one of those adjectives that clearly falls on the permanent side of the divide. That’s the real problem with Obama choosing that word. He continues to make the same point (which I’m sure is valid) and continues saying bitter too. I think it would be much wiser if he hammered the point but switched to adjectives with a temporary flavor: angry, upset, pissed off, fed up, etc.
It’s funny how so much can hang on one word. I wonder if someone gave Obama bitter to use or if it just came out as he spoke. I imagine the former. If so, the person who suggested it should be given something else to do in the campaign. The stakes are too high to miss things like this.