October 05, 2004

Vociferously global

Maybe now John Richetti will see what Kathleen Hall Jamieson meant when she said that "words found on the SAT verbal exam should not appear in candidate's speeches." John, as an English professor, wrote that "[t]his disgracefully simple-minded ... analysis ... is an insult to me and I should think to all of us who teach writing and communications." But in last Thursday's debate, both candidates violated Kathleen's rule at least once, and for both, it was a mistake. And Kerry's vocabulary blunder was much more serious and consequential than Bush's.

Bush used at least one potential SAT verbal test item in a way that was surprising, if not completely wrong:

In Iraq, no doubt about it, it's tough. It's hard work. It's incredibly hard. You know why? Because an enemy realizes the stakes. The enemy understands a free Iraq will be a major defeat in their ideology of hatred. That's why they're fighting so vociferously.

Vociferous means "Making, given to, or marked by noisy and vehement outcry", according to the American Heritage Dictionary. Though there are certainly plenty of noisy and vehement outcries in Iraq, the problem is not the outcries but the bullets, bombs and beheadings. Bush may have meant viciously or vigorously or something like that, and substituted vociferously as a malapropism; or he may think that vociferous means something like "strong and active in an unpleasant way"; or maybe he really did mean that the Iraqi enemy is fighting in a vocally noisy way.

At best, vociferously was a distracting word choice. At worst, though, it was just another small verbal slip, annoying to some of the people who dislike Bush, and irrelevant to everyone else.

But when Kerry violated Jamieson's Rule, it was Big Trouble.

No president, through all of American history, has ever ceded, and nor would I, the right to preempt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America.

But if and when you do it, Jim, you have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you're doing what you're doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.

The problem here is that global has several meanings (again from the AHD):

1. Having the shape of a globe; spherical. 2. Of, relating to, or involving the entire earth; worldwide: global war; global monetary policies. 3. Comprehensive; total: “a . . . global, generalized sense of loss” (Maggie Scarf). 4. Computer Science Of or relating to an entire program, document, or file.

So which meaning did Kerry intend? The first two meanings for global are "spherical", which doesn't make sense in the context of Kerry's sentence, and "worldwide", which does. The Republicans have jumped on this, to argue that Kerry's second sentence (in the quote given above) commits him to asking permission from the likes of Jacques Chirac before acting on the world stage. Worse, the quote seems to put international relations into the frame of academic test-taking, leaving Kerry wide open to this clever satire.

Rivka at Respectful of Otters argues, as others also have, that Kerry really meant sense #3, "comprehensive" or "total", and that the context makes this clear. I think she's probably right, if only because the alternative is allow Kerry's second sentence to directly contradict his first one. However, Kerry immediately goes on to emphasize the importance of proving legitimacy to the world, reinforcing the "worldwide" meaning of global.

At best, global was a disastrously foolish word choice, requiring Kerry's listeners to ignore a commoner meaning whose policy implications are opposite to those of the rarer sense he had in mind. Try a Google search on global: among the first 100 hits (all that I checked), every single one means "worldwide". At worst, global was a verbal slip that expressed Kerry's true views on international action.

If Kerry meant "comprehensive test" or "total test", he should have used one of those terms. Comprehensive is a somewhat rarer word than global overall (11.5M to 29.5M web hits on Google), while total is somewhat commoner (59.3M WhG) -- but the "comprehensive, total" sense of global is very rare indeed. Definitely SAT verbal exam territory. He shoulda listened to Kathleen.

There's also a "framing" issue here, and one with genuine content, not just a matter of lexical choice. Talking about a test, of whatever kind, invokes a certain conceptual framework: something or someone is tested, some person or group evaluates the test, etc. Here what is being tested is "the way you take preemptive action", but the graders of the test are not very clear -- apparently it's both "your countrymen" and "the world". Kerry might have quoted Thomas Jefferson, whose view of the responsibilities of those who take strong action was that "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them" to act. Jefferson did not take the position that the rebellious colonists needed to prove anything to the rest of the world before acting, though he certainly felt that their actions were principled ones, which could and should be explained. I believe that even Kerry's supporters will agree that his confusing word choice in the debate reflects a more general unclarity -- at least of presentation and maybe of conception -- on this difficult point.


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 5, 2004 10:27 AM