February 04, 2007

Keep on truculent

For breakfast this morning, a bit more on Sullivan v. Angelou. A peek at our own archives uncovered a couple of relevant posts from the dim past. And either Ann Althouse needs to read more carefully, or I need to write more carefully, or both.

Here's the background. In a recent WaPo op-ed about Molly Ivins' death, Maya Angelou wrote that

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.

Under the heading "Can Maya Angelou Write?", Andrew Sullivan asked "Does she mean reluctance?", and went on to comment that "I can forgive the Washington Post's editors allowing Angelou's pretentiousness, self-righteousness and lame, exhausted metaphors into their paper. [...] But I draw the line at patently bad grammar."

I agreed with Sullivan's linguistic analysis ("Lions, satyrs, bears, and pundits", 2/3/2007). It's clearly outside the normal patterns of English usage to say or write something like

*Their truculence to fall . . .

This is not a matter of dialect variation, or of some deprecated but widespread innovation. Nor does it seem to be an instance of poetic license. And I don't think that we can blame Microsoft. Instead, Angelou's use of truculence was apparently an isolated word-substitution error, of the type known as a "malapropism".

As I observed, such errors sometimes involve a basic misunderstanding of a word's meaning; but in other cases, the mistake is a very local one, a slip of the tongue or pen. For example, in one of the published collections of speech errors, someone is recorded as having mentioned "Liszt's second Hungarian restaurant" instead of "Liszt's second Hungarian rhapsody" -- though we can assume that anyone who knows about Liszt also knows the meaning of the word restaurant. In blogging, I type fast and don't look back much, so roughly once a month, some alert reader catches me doing something like this.

This brought me to the question of Sullivan's motivations. It's clear that he dislikes Angelou on many dimensions, political as well as literary. Her style offends him, just as her political positions do. And Sullivan doesn't point out linguistic errors very often, though many are printed every day. In fact, I suggested on the basis of searching his blog that he might never have commented on an error of this type before. And I therefore came to a stunningly obvious conclusion: he was using a linguistic observation to carry his political animus.

This sort of thing makes me uneasy, for the same reason that I've often criticized Jacob Weisberg's relentless pursuit of Bushisms. Weisberg clearly dislikes George W. Bush's personality as well as his politics, and ridicules his (real or imagined) linguistic mistakes in order to attack him both personally and politically. This is on the edge of ad hominem argumentation, especially when it's completely decoupled from any substantive criticism. It also quickly slips into hypocrisy. A significant fraction of Weisberg's Bushisms are examples of things that could surely also be found in Weisberg's own speech, if we scrutinized it the way he and his fans scrutinize W's.

Now, it's a natural human trait to make fun of one's enemies. Molly Ivins was really good at political ridicule, and she wasn't above mentioning personal traits like hair, as in the Texas-oriented ending of a 2001 article on Senator Jim Jeffords' defection ("Shrub flubs his dub", The Nation, 5/31/2001):

Meanwhile, the Texas capitol has just lived through a session-long hangover from the Bush years. [...] Bush was replaced by his exceedingly Lite Guv Rick Perry, who has really good hair. Governor Goodhair, or the Ken Doll (see, all Texans use nicknames--it's not that odd), is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. But the chair of a major House committee says, "Goodhair is much more engaged as governor than Bush was." As the refrain of the country song goes, "O Please, Dear God, Not Another One."

But the ellipsis in that quote covers a couple of hundred of words of details about budget problems, health care, and other specific Texas state government issues. In Ivins' political writing, the jokes about style were almost always connected to an argument over content. In this case, she's arguing that Perry and Bush are superficial people, more concerned about appearance than about substance, and therefore destructive as leaders. This might be true or false, but it's a real political argument, not just snarking about someone's hair -- or their word choice.

So I ended my post on Sullivan v. Angelou by suggesting that pundits who set up a sideline in the analysis of linguistic errors ought to be careful to avoid using it as a form of political attack, especially if there's no connection to arguments about issues. Otherwise it gets to be like commenting on pores and pimples and warts -- if you've always been fascinated by dermatology, fine, but people of all political persuasions have got skin blemishes.

And that includes Andrew Sullivan. Checking our archives for {"Andrew Sullivan"}, I found that a few years ago, I blogged about one of his word-substitution errors ("Fasten = grecian?", 5/18/2005). Sullivan (correctly, I think) criticized the NYT for their "Times Select" initiative:

By sectioning off their op-ed columnists and best writers, they are cutting them off from the life-blood of today's political debate: the free blogosphere. Inevitably, fewer people will link to them; fewer will read them; their influence will wane faster than it has already. The blog is already becoming a rival to the dated op-ed column format as a means of communicating opinion journalism. My bet is that the NYT's retrogressive move will only fasten the decline of op-ed columnists' influence.

I observed that Sullivan's use of "fasten" is clearly a substitution for "hasten", influenced by the same pattern that leads to the famous Simpsons' slogan "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man". My point, though, was not to denigrate Sullivan, but to criticize Weisberg:

I'm not trying to pick on Andrew Sullivan, who is a first-rate writer and needs to make no apologies for his command of the English language. In this case, he generalized a limited morphological pattern to a case where it's not sanctioned by history or current usage. This is something that almost all of us do from time to time. It's a symptom of the fact that we have brains that are capable of learning patterns and applying them in new ways. But when George Bush does it, one of Jacob Weisberg's staffers picks it up and publishes it as the latest Bushism.

Checking the archives also showed that I was wrong about Sullivan never previously mentioning a malapropism. In fact I actually commented ("A classical malapropism and a hypercorrect eggcorn", 7/1/2004) on this item from Sullivan's blog:

EMAIL OF THE DAY II: "I could not resist bringing to your attention this delicious little typo-slash-Freudian-slip, from a reader review of "Fahrenheit 9/11" at the NY Times website (to which I was referred by your blog):

'I was expecting a sloppy, fuzzy, highly manipulated treatment. Instead, Bush Administration damns itself through its own actions, its own words, its own lies...all documented for prosperity.'

Yes, pseudo-proletarian Michael Moore's prosperity -- indeed."

Sullivan's post on the posterity/prosperity swap was also motivated by political animus. But unlike the case of Angelou's truculence, there was a political point implicit in the linguistic observation.

OK, so this brings us at last to Ann Althouse, who posted about this yesterday ("Succulent truculence", 2/3/2007). She makes a helpfully-numbered list of points, most of which I agree with. But not #3:

Speaking of politics, Mark Liberman is himself making a political move of sorts. He's claiming sovereignty over the linguistics field. The implicit argument is that a scholarly domain belongs to the scholars, and that scholars are known by their neutrality. He is nice enough to say he's happy to have company though

Claiming sovereignty? On the contrary.

At the end of my LSA talk on "The future of linguistics", I did suggest that our field could learn from Linus Torvald's 1995 plan for Linux: "World domination. Fast". But the recipe for success, I argued, is inclusiveness. We ought to welcome the participation of anyone interested in speech and language, including Andrew Sullivan and Ann Althouse. (Who had some interesting things to say yesterday about "When one word is funnier than another".)

In Andrew Sullivan's brief posts about Maya Angelou, I diagnosed (maybe falsely) the first signs of Weisbergitis -- a politically-motivated focus on slips of the tongue or pen, decoupled from any revevant political content. I wouldn't raise the same objection to his post about Michael Moore, since in that case, the malapropism neatly captured a political criticism.

Althouse's point #4 also expresses a misunderstanding -- one that's clearly my fault:

Sullivan may be choosing his targets based on politics, but Liberman hasn't proven it. He assumes -- because Sullivan calls himself a conservative? -- that Sullivan doesn't have Bush as a target -- but Sullivan is contemptuous of Bush. If you search for "Bushism" on Sullivan's blog, you can find him quoting a Bushism.

I know very well that Andrew Sullivan has become bitterly contemptuous of Bush, for reasons that (not that it matters) I generally agree with; and I also remember that particular post, in which he ridiculed Bush's apparent failure to understand the concept of "fiscal year". But that "Bushism" was an apparently witless remark -- and a politically relevant one, connected to the same questions of engagement and competence that Molly Ivins raised -- not a malapropism or other linguistic error.

Anyhow, my (overlong and perhaps misguided) critique of Sullivan's brief notes was obviously not clear enough.

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 4, 2007 07:35 AM