January 12, 2006

The [sic]ing of the President

In November, when the White House Press Office sought to change transcripts of a briefing by Scott McClellan (who either thought that it was "accurate" or "not accurate" that Karl Rove and Scooter Libby were known to have had conversations about Valerie Plame), liberal bloggers were quick to invoke the usual dystopic Orwellian imagery. Though that suspicious incident has still not been fully explained, I continue to give the White House transcribers the benefit of the doubt, since the official transcripts rarely give the appearance of being "cleaned up," even to correct trivial (but potentially embarrassing) slips of the tongue. Two examples of transcript problems involving President Bush this week put this idea to the test.

One possible case of transcript-cleansing occurred on Monday, on the occasion of Bush's appearance with Judge Samuel Alito before his confirmation hearing. Eric Pfeiffer on Wonkette reported that this sentence appeared in an early transcript emailed to the White House press pool:

Sam Alito is imminently qualified to be a member of the bench.

It took about fifteen minutes for the White House Press Office to catch this and email out a correction informing the press corps that Bush actually said:

Sam Alito is eminently qualified to be a member of the bench.

This version is also what went into the official White House transcript. But the damage had been done, as Pfeiffer and several other bloggers took the opportunity to ridicule Bush's supposed implication that Alito is not quite qualified but should be soon. (News organizations were roughly split on the matter: a Google News search currently finds 31 appearances of "eminently" and 39 appearances of "imminently." This includes two comments on the transcript correction itself, one from Wonkette and one from Townhall.com.)

In the video accompanying the official transcript, one can clearly hear Bush say ['ɪmɪnəntli] rather than ['ɛmɪnəntli]. But how do we know that this was a malapropistic gaffe as the bloggers imply, rather than simply an example of the pin-pen merger? The merger of /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ before nasals, typically with /ɛ/ raising to the position of [ɪ], is a dialectal feature encompassing most of Texas, and Bush identifies himself as a native Texan. (His family moved to Texas when he was two, though it's often claimed that his Texan accent is a relatively new phenomenon and lacks authenticity.) I haven't made an exhaustive study, but I believe Bush frequently exhibits the pin-pen merger (especially when he's in a folksy Texan mode), though the feature is not always evident. When he called Harriet Miers "eminently qualified" (whoops!) on Oct. 4, the audio suggests that he raised the initial vowel to [ɪ]. But when he said it again about Miers on Oct. 12, the word sounded more like ['ɛmɪnəntli]. And on Nov. 6, when he wanted to make it "eminently clear that the United States is a friend of Brazil" the initial vowel again seemed to be in the neighborhood of [ɪ] (though the audio is not entirely clear).

A transcriber lacking the pin-pen merger might misconstrue Bush's pronunciation of "eminently" as ['ɪmɪnəntli], and this appears to be what happened when the initial transcript of Monday's comments was released with "imminently." The later correction by the White House Press Office might not have been remarked upon in another presidency, but since it has become such a sport to lampoon Bush's disfluencies, this simply added more fuel to the fire. Despite the clumsy handling of the correction, I don't think Bush's use of ['ɪmɪnəntli] is necessarily proof of a lexical confusion between "imminently" and "eminently." Of course, such a confusion could be encouraged by the existence of the pin-pen merger, since the two words would become homonymous. But this homonymy also means that we have no way of knowing if a speaker with the merger has the lexical confusion solely based on spoken evidence. (The confusion would be easier to spot in written form, but in that case we'll just have to wait until Bush's presidential papers are released for verification.)

Let's see how the White House transcribers deal with a more obvious slip of the tongue from Bush. On Tuesday, in his address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Bush uttered this unfortunate remark:

You took an oath to defend our flag and our freedom, and you kept that oath underseas and under fire.

The sentence as constructed by Bush's speechwriters has multiple parallel structures, such as "took an oath...kept an oath" and "our flag and our freedom." But Bush flubbed the final parallel structure of "overseas and under fire" by overextending the parallelism to "underseas and under fire," thus committing a kind of anticipatory assimilation. Again, Eric Pfeiffer on Wonkette and other bloggers were quick to snicker. (Jacob Weisberg must have been busy, since neither of these has appeared on his list of Bushisms yet.) Fair enough, a clear gaffe. But how does the official transcript read?

You took an oath to defend our flag and our freedom, and you kept that oath underseas [sic] and under fire.

No coverup here. Indeed, the White House transcribers have no problem deploying a well-placed [sic], as in these recent examples from President Bush:

12/4/05: In his capacity to grow and to excel as an artist, Robert Redford has shown very few limitations. In 1980, he decided to try working behind the camera. The result was "Ordinary People," and it won him the Oscar for best actor [sic].

12/7/05: An Iraqi battalion has consumed [sic] control of the former American military base, and our forces are now about 40 minutes outside the city.

1/6/06: I can't imagine a tax code that penalizes marriage. It seems like to me we ought to be encouraging marriage to [sic] our tax code.

In the first example, Bush commits a factual error: Kennedy Center honoree Robert Redford won the Oscar for best director, not best actor in 1980. The next example is an assimilatory slip like "underseas and under fire"; in this case, "assumed control" is transformed into "consumed control." The third [sic] flags a clumsy prepositional usage, since we can assume Bush is in favor of encouraging marriage through, not to, our tax code.

In fact, Bush got [sic]ed twice in the same speech on Monday at a Maryland elementary school, commemorating the fourth anniversary of the signing of the No Child Left Behind Act. From the transcript:

And as I mentioned, there was a lot of non-partisan cooperation -- kind of a rare thing in Washington. But it made sense when it come [sic] to public schools.

Laura and I's [sic] spirits are uplifted any time we go to a school that's working, because we understand the importance of public education in the future of our country.

First, "it come..." is given the [sic] treatment, evidently Bush's latest stumble over agreement in number. (Perhaps Bush was wavering between "came" and "come(s)" since the main clause uses a past-tense construction, "it made sense.")  It would have been easy enough to change the transcript to read "it comes" without anyone noticing, but the transcriber remained meticulous. In the second case, Bush takes a common route for dealing with a coordinate possessive structure in which the last item is a pronoun. English is notoriously vexing when it comes to such structures, and Bush's solution of "Laura and I's spirits" may actually be a slight improvement for some speakers over the putatively standard but no less awkward "Laura's and my spirits." Nonetheless, it too gets the [sic].

Could it be that the transcriber is making a point of correcting Bush, particularly in a speech about education? (During the speech Bush made one of his usual self-effacing remarks about his own disfluencies: "I can remember [Laura] reading to our little girls all the time. Occasionally, I did, too, but stumbled over a few of the words and might have confused them.") One blogger seemed to think so, commenting, "Hell, even the transcript guy is marking Bush down."

But President Bush isn't the only one who gets [sic]ed by the White House transcription team. For the month of December, I found two [sic]s for Vice President Cheney and three for Scott McClellan:

Cheney, 12/6/05: One unit of the 40 (sic) I.D., the "Fighting 69th" from New York City, showed its toughness in confronting insurgents around Baghdad.

Cheney, 12/20/05: I don't believe for a minute that the vast majority of Americans are prepared to accept defeat, to retreat in the face of terror, to turn over Iran (sic) or Afghanistan to the likes of Osama bin Laden.

McClellan, 12/12/05: And it's important that all of us, not only in the coalition, but the entire international community and the Arab world, stand behind the Iraqi people during this time of transition to a peaceful and democratic future, because the Iraqi people have shown through their courage and determination that they want a freedom of future [sic].

McClellan, 12/14/05: Then the members were able to hear from Ambassador Khalilzad, who was on with General Casey from Baghdad, video conference. And General Khalilzad [sic] gave an update on the elections and talked about how there are more than 300 political parties that are participating in the elections.

McClellan, 12/16/05:  I think these are difficult issues that you have to address in a post-September 11th world. Some people go back to a post-9/11 [sic] mind-set now that we're four years after the attacks of September 11th.

Most of these misspeaks appear to be factual errors (besides McClellan's odd invocation of "a freedom of future") and thus are obvious candidates for [sic]ing. By contrast, Bush gets [sic]ed not just on errors of fact but also on seemingly minor grammatical lapses. All in all, the transcribers at the White House seem at pains to demonstrate that they are not, in fact, sanitizing any potential embarrassments in the public comments of Bush and other officials. This is good to know, especially for those of us in the reality-based community.

[Update #1: The author of the blog Whatever It Is, I'm Against It (noted above) writes in with more on White House [sic]ing:

I've been sporadically noting the whitehouse.gov [sic] phenomenon, which I personally attribute to the very understandable annoyance of someone assigned to transcribe the speeches of George W. Bush. They're payback sics. More:

"Our journey from national independence to equal injustice [sic] included the enslavement of millions, and a four-year civil war." (blog link)

"armies of compassions [sic]" & inspectors generals [sic] (blog link)

"An Iraqi battalion has consumed [sic] control of the former American military base" (blog link)

I'm not so sure I buy that these are "payback sics" from a resentful transcriber, but I guess you never know.]

[Update #2: Jacob Weisberg finally got around to the "underseas" Bushism, more than a week late.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at January 12, 2006 01:20 AM