February 03, 2007

Truculence: lions, satyrs, bears and pundits

Andrew Sullivan obviously didn't like Maya Angelou's farewell to Molly Ivins ( "Molly Ivins Shook the Walls with her Clarion Call", WaPo, 2/2/2007). At 4:34 yesterday afternoon he asked "Can Maya Angelou Write?":

What on earth does this sentence mean:

The walls of ignorance and prejudice and cruelty, which she railed against valiantly all her public life, have not fallen, but their truculence to do so does not speak against her determination to make them collapse.

"Truculence" to do so? Does she mean reluctance? Or is there some other meaning to truculence that I'm unaware of?

And a couple of hours later he added ("Angelou again", 2/2/2007 6:21 p.m.):

Yes, I know what truculence means, thank you very much. What I don't understand is how it makes grammatical sense in the sentence Angelou wrote. I think she meant the walls' truculent refusal to fall down. But as written, the sentence is ungrammatical. I can forgive the Washington Post's editors allowing Angelou's pretentiousness, self-righteousness and lame, exhausted metaphors into their paper. (Joshua? Please.) But I draw the line at patently bad grammar.

He's right, I think, that the word truculence seems out of place. But there's something else about this that's almost equally unusual.

Let's do the grammar first. It's reasonable for a poet to imagine that the walls of ignorance and prejudice and cruelty might have "The condition or quality of being truculent; fierceness, savageness", as the OED puts it; or "A disposition or apparent disposition to fight, especially fiercely; Ferociously cruel actions or behavior", in the words of the AHD. But it doesn't seem to make sense -- syntactically or semantically -- to talk about their "fierceness to fall" or their "ferociously cruel actions to fall", as Angelou's sentence implicitly does.

The syntactic strangeness is especially clear: truculent and truculence don't usually take infinitival complements, in the way that words like eager and eagerness do. You don't come across things like "he was truculent to leave" or "his truculence to leave". It might make sense to extend the language this way, though I guess "he was truculent to leave" would mean "he was ready to fight in order to leave", or "he attempted ferociously and belligerently to leave", or something like that, and those meanings would be the opposite of what Angelou was getting at. But anyhow, I've never heard or read any uses like that, and neither has Google, and I'll bet you haven't either.

So it's not a surprise to find that Angelou's sentence is exploring grammatical ground that's new to English literature. The string {"truculence to"} doesn't occur in Literature Online's "more than 350,000 works of poetry, drama and prose in English from the eighth century to the present day".

The string "truculent to" does occur once, but the example involves the other "to" -- not the infinitive+verb one but the preposition+noun one. According to LION, it comes up in Samuel Pordage's long-forgotten poem, "THE EXPLANATION of an Hieroglyphical Figure, SHEWING THE MYSERIES of the External, Internal and Eternal WORLDS", 1661 (emphasis added):

3781 Toads are not venomous to Toads; nor is
3782 The Lion truculent to those of his
3783 Kind; nor are Monsters frightful unto theirs:
3784 Satyrs to Satyrs, nor are Bears to Bears:
3785 So Man whose Soul's drench'd in the Stygian pool;
3786 Thinks not Hel's worst deformed spirits soul.

As I read this, it seemed to me that "soul" in the last line must be a misprint (or a misreading) for "foul" -- an easy mistake, given the possible typographical confusion in that period between f and "long s" (ſ). And a peek at the page image (ain't the internet wonderful?) confirms this guess:

In just the same way, Angelou's "truculence" strikes me as a malapropism for "reluctance". This could mean that she misunderstands what truculence means, or it could be one of those sporadic word-substitution errors that we all make from time to time. When two words are similar in sound and vaguely associated in meaning, like reluctance and truculence (or the blend "truculent reluctance", which would fit well into Angelou's sentence) this is a very easy kind of mistake to make.

If it was Angelou's mistake, I'm surprised that the Post's copy editor didn't catch it. Then again, maybe copy editors are intimidated by poets. On the other hand, if it was the Post's mistake, then Angelou must be steamed.

However, the history of this word-substitution is not the most interesting point here. There are plenty of solecisms printed every day, and we comment on a small sample of them here on Language Log -- but Andrew Sullivan usually doesn't.

In fact, I'm not sure that he's ever commented on a grammatical point before, or indeed on any other question of usage that doesn't involve the interpretation of a politically-charged word like "islamist" (or "christianist", a term that Sullivan has done much to popularize).

At least, the word "ungrammatical" has never previously appeared on his blog, as far as I tell by using its (Google-powered) search box. And the only previous use of the word "grammatical" was in a quote from David Byrne about the innateness of religion ("The Dance That Is Religion", 1/28/2007: "These dances, music, images, metaphors are, I sense, deep-rooted — they are like the neural propensities for grammatical structures that Chomsky goes on about — and are therefore similarly genetically inheritable."). The word "grammar" occurs four times, but three of them are in the phrase "grammar school". The fourth is in a quote from George Orwell about "the grammar of Newspeak" ("Plus Up!", 1/23/2007), with respect to the prefixes un-, plus- and doubleplus-.The words "malaprop", "malapropism", "solecism" also don't occur, as far as a Google search can tell me.

So it's hardly a stretch to guess that Andrew is truculent to Angelou because she is very much not of his political kind.

Some other conservative bloggers have reacted in similar ways. Thus John Derbyshire, apparently without a hint of irony, compared Maya Angelou to William MacGonagall under the title "Voice of the master" (NRO the corner, 2/2/2007).

Come on, you pundits. The analysis of word choice, sentence structure, and meaning is an honorable calling, and we linguists are always happy to have company. But if you're going to pounce on Maya Angelou's malapropism without saying anything about things like the alleged proliferation of Bushisms, or Tony Snow's misuse of "inveigling", or Lawrence Henry's odd use of "slurry", or any of the rest of the daily parade of questionable usage in political discourse, people might get the idea that your linguistics is really politics.

[Update -- Heidi Harley suggests that Angelou might be a victim of the Cupertino effect:

just one other hypothesis about 'truculence' and 'reluctance' -- I think it could actually be a spellcheck substitution error (ie a Cupertino effect): Experimenting with Word, I see that the only suggestion the spellchecker makes for the following string


is 'truculence'; it doesn't come up with 'reluctance'. Similarly for 'rtlucence', though 'rluctence' does trigger a suggestion of 'reluctance'. If there was some garbled typing and unconsidered spellchecking on Angelou's part, and then the Post's copyeditors were too respectful of Angelou to question her usage, there ya go.

This seems less likely to me than the malapropism theory, but both are speculation.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 3, 2007 09:51 AM