March 09, 2005

More bullshit grammar

In addition to referring to a bunch of nouns as adjectives, Timothy Noah's review of Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit makes a second error in grammatical analysis.

Noah writes:

Although Frankfurt doesn't point this out, it immediately occurred to me upon closing his book that the word "bullshit" is both noun and verb, and that this duality distinguishes bullshit not only from the aforementioned Menckenesque antecedents, but also from its contemporary near-relative, horseshit. It is possible to bullshit somebody, but it is not possible to poppycock, or to twaddle, or to horseshit anyone. When we speak of bullshit, then, we speak, implicitly, of the action that brought the bullshit into being: Somebody bullshitted. In this respect the word "bullshit" is identical to the word "lie," for when we speak of a lie we speak, implicitly, of the action that brought the lie into being: Somebody lied.

But actually, of the 14 "Menckenesque antecedents" that Noah cites (humbug, poppycock, tommyrot, hooey, twaddle, balderdash, claptrap, palaver, hogwash, buncombe (or "bunk"), hokum, drivel, flapdoodle, bullpucky), four are given a verbal sense by the American Heritage Dictionary: humbug, twaddle, palaver, and drivel.

A quick check in the OED adds some others from the list that are cited as verbs:

1821 W. IRVING in Warner Life (1882) 136 A fostered growth of poetry and romance, and balderdashed with false sentiment.
1893 Westm. Gaz. 11 July 2/1 He flapdoodled round the subject in the usual Archiepiscopal way.

The OED also reveals that some of these were verbs before they were nouns (at least in the bullshit-related sense) -- thus drivel as a verb meaning "To talk childishly or idiotically; to let silly nonsense drop from the lips; to rave" from 1362, vs. drivel as a noun meaning "Idiotic utterance; silly nonsense; twaddle" from 1852.

Several of the others on Noah's list are sometimes painlessly verbed, as a simple net search verifies:

Balderdashing into doom [6/22/2004 WaPo headline]
Who's this hokey honky tryin to hooey? (link)
When Gianera let the casual acquaintance into his home, Mullin cried “You’re claptrapping me!” and shot Jim as he tried to escape. (link)
And I am not horseshitting you, I really did do it. (link)
It appears Marilyn Stowe was hogwashing us. (link)

It's certainly true that bullshit is used more commonly as a verb than these other words are -- but it's also used more commonly, period (e.g. 3,040,000 ghits for bullshit vs. 171,000 for twaddle or 84,800 for horseshit).

Unlike the "nouns are adjectives" mistake, this one seems to arise from carelessness about what is being claimed and lack of concern for what the relevant facts really are. So ironically, the insight about the word bullshit that Noah starts his column with -- is itself bullshit. I mean this in the specific technical sense of the term that derives from Frankfurt: "bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true".

Noah's review seems to be calculated to place the rhetorical ball so that he can spike it into the teeth of the Bush administration. He ends this way:

The Bush administration is clearly more bullshit-heavy than its predecessors. Slate's founding editor, Michael Kinsley, put his finger on the Bush administration's particular style of lying three years ago:

If the truth was too precious to waste on politics for Bush I and a challenge to overcome for Clinton, for our current George Bush it is simply boring and uncool. Bush II administration lies are often so laughably obvious that you wonder why they bother. Until you realize: They haven't bothered.

But by Frankfurt's lights, what Bush does isn't lying at all. It's bullshitting. Whatever you choose to call it, Bush's indifference to the truth is indeed more troubling, in many ways, than what Frankfurt calls "lying" would be. Richard Nixon knew he was bombing Cambodia. Does George W. Bush have a clue that his Social Security arithmetic fails to add up? How can he know if he doesn't care?

Social Security surely matters more than grammatical terminology does. But Noah's disdain for GWB's carelessness about the analysis of budgets would be more convincing if Noah himself were not so careless about the analysis of words.


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 9, 2005 05:20 AM