June 27, 2004

Psycho Simon

A couple of weeks ago, we discussed the fascinating cover story in the July/August Atlantic, in which James Fallows examines the debating histories of George W. Bush and John Kerry. Yesterday, NPR got around to interviewing Fallows on this topic, and as Geoff Pullum pointed out last night, the segment features Scott Simon (the host of Weekend Edition) making a bad joke about "psycho linguists".

Here's a link to the NPR Weekend Edition program segment, which is worth listening to, apart from Simon's boorish intervention, because it includes some audio clips of past debates. If you focus on the passage where Simon makes an idiot of himself, you'll notice something odd.

Fallows: A second hypothesis, which a number of psycholinguists told me, is that there's a particular form of dys-
Simon: Excuse me, I've never heard that term. Do you mean -- linguists who are, are MAD?
Fallows: No -
Simon: or - or - um - or -
Fallows: There's an actual field called "psycholinguistics", believe it or not.
Simon: OK.

Now, Fallows de-stresses "linguists" (and/or contrasts "pycho") in psycholinguists, because he's just been talking about a theory due to "the linguist George Lakoff", but in context, that's not odd. What odd is that Simon uses the word mad when he clearly means "mentally disturbed", as in the slang sense of psycho for "psychotic". The American way to say that is "crazy". For Americans, mad usually means "angry", except in certain expressions (like "mad with rage") or when imitating British speakers.

I can't figure out why Simon would have chosen this word. Perhaps he associates puerile sarcasm with a British debating style? If so, he was insulting the British as well as the linguists.

It's worth adding that Simon was probably not telling the truth when he claimed never to have heard the term -- presumably this was just his jocular way of intervening to clarify a word that he felt his audience might not understand. Even if Simon has managed to remain unaware of the general use of Greek compounding to name scientific disciplines, the particular terms "psycholinguist" or "psycholinguistics" make the news from time to time. Slate's Today's Papers has two hits over the past few years; the Atlantic has three; the NYT index returns 14; and even npr.org has one -- in a review of The Language Instinct. More recently, Fortune had an article a few weeks ago about Annie Duke that features the term in its first sentence.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 27, 2004 12:12 PM