May 14, 2004


Although I rarely disagree with Geoff Pullum, I will venture to do so with respect to his discussion of George W. Bush's statement that "Like you, I have been disgraced from [or "about", or "by"] what I've seen on TV, what took place in the prison."

Geoff argues that "disgraced" must have been a mistaken choice of word -- a malapropism -- because "(1) it makes no sense, since Bush is not personally and directly in disgrace over this (no one says he helped wire up prisoners or unleash dogs on them); (2) it would not be to the point (this isn't about his shame or loss of standing in society); and (3) even if some people thought it were all about him being shamed, Bush makes it a paramount principle of his administration that no one ever admits to shame about America."

Now, Geoff might be right that W really meant to say that he was "disgusted" or "dismayed", had in mind that the events are "a disgrace", and came out with "disgraced." But it ain't necessarily so. I'm perfectly prepared to state, speaking for myself, that I've been disgraced by the Abu Ghraib atrocities, simply by virtue of being a citizen of the country that ran the prison, and not because I feel any direct or indirect responsibility.

And this is not just a quirk of my experience with (the word) "disgrace". The OED's sense 2b for "disgrace" (the verb) is:

2b. To put out of countenance, abash, dismay.

1607 TOPSELL Four-f. Beasts (1658) 160 Casting..burning torches into the face of the elephant; by which the huge beast is not a little disgraced and terrified.

and its sense 7 is:

7. To bring (as an incidental consequence) shame, dishonour, or discredit upon; to be a disgrace or shame to; to reflect dishonour upon.

1752 JOHNSON Rambler No. 196 7 Of his children..some may disgrace him by their follies.

Perhaps swayed by the received idea that W is prone to misspeaking, Geoff has been too quick to take his own perceptions -- which in general are remarkably acute -- as a picture of English usage in general. I agree with Geoff that for the commander-in-chief to say that he has been disgraced does raise the option of a different sense of "disgrace", the one appropriate for someone who is responsible for a disgraceful action -- who is "in disgrace" rather than simply being shamed or dishonoured -- or "disgraced" -- by the actions of others. If I were in W's place, I'd have taken that possibility into consideration, and I would have tried to make it very clear just what I meant. But it's possible that what he meant was pretty much just what he said, or at least what I would have meant by saying the same thing.

To establish that W's sense of "disgraced" -- and mine -- are not just archaic 17th- and 18th-century usages somehow preserved in rural America, I'll cite, as one last piece of evidence, (Philadelphia native) Joan Jett's 1995 song Last to Know:

There was a time I'd given you a piece of my soul
Now everything's changed and it's gettin' so outta control
Cuz I caught you one time then I caught you two times
You'd better walk away cuz now the truth's been told

You disgraced me how can you face me
I was the last to know
For all I tried to be
You still lied to me
I was the last to know

I been rackin' my brain and the truth is plain to see
You got no shame about what you've done to me
I believed you one time there wouldn't be another time
Get on your way cuz nobody rides for free

I thought you'd save me
But you betrayed me
I was the last to know
It was a sneak attack
You stabbed me in the back
I was the last to know

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat
The sheets are wet all these crazy thoughts going
Round and round in my head thinkin' 'bout the things we said
Some things we done somethin' happened somethin' changed
I'm not sure what I'm not sure who to blame

I got somethin' to say an' I hope it's getting through
Cuz I know what I gotta do what I never ever wanted to do
I warned you one time but now you crossed the line
It's too late now cuz I'm done with you

You disgraced me how can you face me
I was the last to know
For all I tried to be
You still lied to me
I was the last to know

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 14, 2004 09:20 PM