September 08, 2004


At a campaign stop in Poplar Bluff MO on 9/6, President Bush was reported to have pushed his stand on tort reform by complaining that "too many OB/GYN's aren't able to practice their love with women all across the country."

As this sound clip makes clear, that's pretty close to what he actually said:

"Too many good docs are getting out of business. Too many O B G Y Ns aren't able to practice their-- their love with women all across this country."

What W meant to talk about is a real issue -- I know several women who have had to find a new doctor because their old one has left medicine, or at least has left his or her former practice. I understand that it's getting hard to find an OB-Gyn in this area who'll take new patients. The docs who are quitting cite the rising costs of malpractice insurance as one of the key factors. There is considerable controversy about causes and cures, but a 2003 GAO report did find that "losses on medical malpractice claims ... appear to be the primary driver of rate increases in the long run".

In any case, the president got himself into a phrase that he couldn't find a good way out of. There really are doctors who are no longer able to practice their ... what? They're practicing medicine, but you can't say that they're practicing their medicine, and you wouldn't want to say that they're practicing their medicine on women. Practicing their business? Their craft? Neither one is quite right. These doctors often protest that they love their work; perhaps another version of the stump speech talking about how malpractice insurance costs are preventing doctors from doing what they love to do; anyhow, out slipped that word love.

Of course, that sort of thing really happens sometimes too, at least in the euphemistic sense.

The repetition of their and the pauses before and after love make it clear that W understood that he'd gotten himself into a linguistic trap. He didn't just blindly stick in the wrong word, he just couldn't think of the right one fast enough.

It would have worked, I think, to say that "too many OB-Gyn's aren't able to practice their profession with women all across the country", though this is a bit awkward, and it might have been better to leave the women out of it. It would have been better still to start with the women, and say "too many women all across the country are finding that their OB-Gyn's can't practice medicine any more", or something like that. But once launched into the sentence "Too many OB-Gyn's are aren't able to practice their...", I doubt that I could have found my way out, in real time, any more fluently than George W. Bush did. I like to think that I wouldn't have said something so embarrassing. But I also like to think that I wouldn't have missed Mookie Wilson's grounder. And I'm probably wrong in both cases.

The MS-NBC announcer, interestingly, committed several disfluencies in introducing the Bush clip, including mispronouncing (and partially correcting) the name of the town where the speech took place.

[Update: Daniel Davies blogged this yesterday at Crooked Timber, and in the comments, someone named Robbo wrote:

The guy's an embarrassment to us all. Even his most ardent admirers, if they're honest with themselves, feel some level of embarrassment whenever Bush unleashes a statement like this on our ears. And it happens a lot. In the end, I think his inability to speak contemporanesouly gives us our best shot at getting rid of him.

The trouble with this topic is that I can't tell whether Robbo has introduced a misspelled malapropism for "extemporaneously" on purpose, to be ironical, or in the natural course of events, creating a different sort of irony. I'm leaning towards the second hypothesis. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 8, 2004 06:26 AM