September 10, 2005

Inveigling against the bed-wetters

Tony Snow, a Fox News Radio host, is joining Mark Helprin in unloading on Americans of all political persuasions, whom he calls "a large, vocal and potentially pestilential cadre of First Over-Responders":

Let's face it, the political left -- aided and abetted by Pat Buchanan and members of the bed-wetting right -- made utter fools of themselves.

Helprin was concerned that

the country has lost, as exemplified by the Left now out of power, a great deal of the will to self-preservation, and, as exemplified by the Right now in charge, not a little of its capacity for self-defense.

while Snow feels that things are OK, except that everyone is complaining too much. It pegs the irony meter for an American talk-show host to complain about people complaining about politicians, but this being Language Log, my interest in Snow's screed is purely linguistic.

Two things caught my eye. To start with, who are the "bed-wetting right", and in what sense are they incontinent? It's starting to worry me that I'm puzzled by so many of the metaphors thrown around in American politics these days.

Apparently Snow means the conservatives who have been complaining about incompetent cronies at FEMA, calling for Michael Brown to be fired, and so on. That would be pundits like Bill Kristol, Andrew Sullivan, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Malkin, Bob Novak; outlets like the Weekly Standard, and so on.

And I guess that being a bed-wetter means "delayed in developing the basic characteristics for moving from infancy to childhood", or "inappropriately infantile", or something like that. Thus the idea must be that a grown-up conservative would defend a Republican administration no matter what. Expecting executive competence is something to outgrow, like diapers. It's hard to believe Snow meant that -- but what else could it be?

Snow's second contribution to the linguistic highlights of the week was a classic malapropism, apparently brought on by an acute attack of bigwordism:

In time, virtually every Democratic panjandrum found some novel way to politicize the Atlantic typhoon. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton inveigled against the evils of Big Oil. Sen. Edward Kennedy ...

Having used panjandrum instead of leader, novel instead of new, typhoon instead of hurricane, Snow went that lexical bridge too far: dimly remembering the verb inveigh against meaning "attack", he slipped up and wrote inveigled against instead.

Perhaps there's some sort of preservation law operating here, since California recently changed its criminal law jury instructions so that kidnappers are no longer required to have "inveigled" their victims. Tony Snow's gaffe is evidence that this was the right thing to do.

[via Professor Bainbridge]

[Update: I once again demonstrated the validity of the Hartman/McKean Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation by mistyping "inveigling" as "iveigling" in the title of this post.

And John Cowan wrote to suggest that bedwetting incontinence might be a metaphor for senility rather than infancy. True enough, but why would senility make people inappropriately expect official competence? No, I think it's got to be an invitation to Andrew Sullivan et al. to grow up and get over it. ]

[Update #2: Arnold Zwicky points out that "inveigle against" has 110 Google hits (against 56,000 for "inveigh against", but still...) and that

possibly the best is from (the Google Blogoscoped Encyclopedia entry for "damn"), which gives us:

Synonyms for Damn

Abuse, anathematize, attack, ban, banish, blaspheme, blast, cast out, castigate, censure, complain of, confound, convict, criticize, cry down, curse, cuss, darn, denounce, denunciate, doom, drat, excommunicate, excoriate, execrate, expel, flame, fulminate against, imprecate, inveigle against, jinx, object to, objurgate, pan, penalize, proscribe, punish, revile, sentence, slam, swear, thunder against, voodoo.

(notice that "inveigh against" is not even listed.)

According to the website, "This English encyclopedia and dictionary was built automatically using Google definitions & translations,'s Thesaurus, and Technorati."

Arnold's comment: "Oops".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 10, 2005 02:21 PM