April 27, 2004

Weisbergism of the week

Following up on Eugene Volokh's discovery of Jacob Weisberg's fondness for "you know" as a filler, here are a couple of other examples of Weisberg using stigmatized features of the vernacular, in a passage whose structure is incoherent in the way that extemporaneous speech often is:

(link) We were sort of infuriated by that, for a couple of reasons. The main one is the idea that -- I mean, we take our integrity very seriously, and the idea that it's somehow corrupting for NPR to work on a show with journalists from Slate, we didn't understand why, just because Microsoft happens to own us, why we're impure in some way that they're not. [emphasis added]

As I wrote back on Jan. 3

You can make any public figure sound like a boob, if you record everything he says and set hundreds of hostile observers to combing the transcripts for disfluencies, malapropisms, word formation errors and examples of non-standard pronunciation or usage. It's even easier if the critics use anecdotes based on the perceptions and verbal memories of equally hostile listeners.

I think that the excessive focus on George Bush's alleged language problems, fostered by Jacob Weisberg's "Bushism" enterprise at Slate, is a very bad idea. It's a bad idea because it trades on regional and class prejudices -- and yes, I know that George W. Bush has roots in the New England aristocracy, but it seems that he's regarded as a linguistic traitor to his class, just as FDR was seen as an economic traitor to his class. The "Bushism" obsession is also a bad idea because it seizes on and amplifies the most trivial mis-statements, and thus helps push public figures to replace unscripted discussion with artificial exchanges of carefully-packaged sound bites. And finally, it's a bad idea because it exemplifies the urge to replace political discourse with Pavlovian conditioning.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 27, 2004 05:20 AM