July 21, 2005

Grammar school for scandal: Rove suspected of parsing

Barbara Partee wrote in to draw attention to a quote in Anne Kornblut's 7/17/2005 NYT article "'Indispensible': Does It Have a Shelf Life?":

One former Republican official who retains close ties to the White House said there could be a political cost for keeping Mr. Rove on board even if he is found to have done nothing illegal. "If Karl survives, he does so at the president's political expense," said the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be seen as disloyal to Mr. Rove.

"George W. Bush came into office promising two tenets that are in competition now: straight talk, non-parsing - and loyalty," the former official said. "He's either got to choose loyalty or straight talk. He can't do both." [emphasis added]

Barbara's comment: "Unless 'parsing' has come to mean 'playing sophistical linguistic games' or something, I don't understand why not parsing should be a virtue!"

My own first reaction was that it's nice to see interests of lexicographers given such weight by the media. The NYT's policy on Confidential News Sources reads in part

The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers reliable and newsworthy.

Since the content of the quote from the "former Republican official" is banal conventional wisdom, except for this striking word usage, the justification for using it must be lexicographic, right? But in fact, the basic information about this usage turns out to be widely available.

To start with, the OED cites an established use of parse to mean "examine minutely", as in

1788 F. GROSE Art Caricature 14 When you wish to draw a face from recollection you must well commit it to memory, by parsing it in your mind (as schoolboys term it) by naming the contour and different species of features of which it is constructed.
2001 Newsweek 17 Dec. 60/1 Science has parsed nearly every move of every Olympic event and figured out what athletes must do to bring back the gold.

Searching Google News this morning for journalistic uses of parsing, I find some examples of this sort, like :

Armchair quarterbacks across Stark County are parsing the possible fate of North Canton’s Hoover plant.

Love those parsing quarterbacks! But there's a new sense of parsing in the air, which seems to involve very careful consideration of the meaning of words and phrases, either to design them to mislead in the first place, or to explain or excuse them in retrospect:

Is Tom Tancredo at all sorry for what he said? Oh, please. He is parsing what he said down to the very nub. (Rocky Mountain News, 7/20/2005 - link)

There is also a collocation "legal parsing" or "legally parsing", which associates this kind of behavior specifically with lawyers or lawyer-like behavior, and can be applied to deeds as well as words:

Whatever else Mr. Daley has accomplished for Chicago — and the list is immense — sorrow, legal parsing and overdue reforms won’t be enough.

An editorial in the Macon Telegraph makes the Rove/parsing connection, under the headline "Legal parsing of words does disservice to truth",

We now know when Clinton said, "I did not have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinsky," he was legally parsing his words. When Rove said last year, regarding Plame, "I didn't know her name and didn't leak her name," he was legally parsing his words, too.

Since almost no one learns about literal parsing any more, it's not surprising that the metaphorical sense of parse as "examine very carefully, especially with respect to possible alternative interpretations" has come to dominate. More recent examples in re Rove:

We obfuscate when we parse the meaning of ‘is’ or ‘name’ to cover our actions rather than illuminate them.
A president uncomfortable with moral ambiguities cannot be happy having to parse what the meaning of the word "name" is.
The way Washington parses these pronouncements, Rove should have been packing his suitcases for a move back to Texas.

Of course now, the press is busy finding ways to apply parsing to John Roberts:

As we parse the record, it seems clear that Roberts qualifies as someone who takes the law seriously and won't try to legislate from the bench.
My predictions on how Roberts will vote when he (almost certainly) gets to the court are not based on a close reading of his scholarly writings - there are almost none - or a parsing of his decisions as an appellate judge.
The blogs were quick out of the box this morning in parsing President Bush's choice of John Roberts to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement.
By allowing the opposition candidate to get by with parsed words and nuanced policies, we failed to give the people a reasonable alternative.
...already there are Democrats parsing every word that he has written on civil rights, on abortion, on environmental protection, on criminal law.
Washington's business representatives are also doing their share of judge-parsing...

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 21, 2005 08:52 AM