October 28, 2005

Miered in doubt

Now that she has withdrawn her name from the Supreme Court nomination process, what will the linguistic legacy of Harriet Miers be? Will she be remembered as a supposed stickler in matters grammatical who ran afoul of subject-verb agreement in her first public statement as a nominee? Or will history record Miers' punctuation style, either her "trouble with commas" in written responses to Senate questions or her exuberant use of exclamation points in correspondence with President Bush when he was governor of Texas?

Perhaps Trent Lott is right to wonder, "In a month, who will remember the name Harriet Miers?" But an Associated Press article suggests that Miers' lasting legacy will only be her name, converted into a verb in the manner of Robert Bork, her predecessor in nomination termination (or "SCOTUS interruptus," as several wags have termed it). Like Bork, Miers has been eponymized primarily in the passive voice: Bork got Borked, Miers got Miered. Though Miered lacks the phonesthemic punch of Borked, it does of course have the benefit of being a pun on mired. Semantically there's a distinction too, according to the blogospheric sources quoted by the AP:

A contributor to The Reform Club, a right-leaning blog, wrote that to get "borked" was "to be unscrupulously torpedoed by an opponent," while to get "miered" was to be "unscrupulously torpedoed by an ally."

S.T. Karnick, co-editor of The Reform Club, elaborated.

"If you have a president who is willing to instigate a big controversy, the prospect of being 'borked' will be the major possibility," he said. "But if you have a president who is always trying to get consensus, then it's much more likely that nominees will get 'miered.'"

On The National Review Online, a conservative site, a contributor suggested that "to mier" means "to put your own allies in the most untenable position possible based upon exceptionally bad decision-making."

You don't have to fail in the Supreme Court nomination process to get your own verb. Justice David Souter was also eponymized, though it was well after his elevation to the Court. When the reticent John Roberts was announced as Bush's choice to fill Sandra Day O'Connor's anticipated vacancy, there was talk of him being Soutered. As CNN explained, "to 'Souter' has come to mean to pick a candidate without knowing much about him." It is presented as the opposite of getting Borked; where Bork had a voluminous record of legal opinions, Souter was an enigma at the time of his nomination by Bush Sr. and thus was difficult to attack during Senate questioning. But conservatives have also used Soutered to refer to the betrayal they felt when Souter joined with moderate to liberal opinions on the bench. "Won't get Soutered again," they vowed.

I note that one of the potential replacements for Miers, according to the New York Times, is Judge Diane Sykes of the Seventh Circuit. Is it too early to wonder if conservatives would be Syked about her nomination?

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at October 28, 2005 01:00 AM