April 01, 2007

The bubbled-in president

Matthew Dowd, President Bush's chief strategist during the 2004 campaign, has some not-so-nice things to say about his former boss in today's New York Times:

"I really like him, which is probably why I’m so disappointed in things," he said. He added, "I think he’s become more, in my view, secluded and bubbled in."

Bubbled in struck me as a peculiar verb-particle construction, but it turns out Dowd isn't the first Republican critic of the administration to use it with reference to Bush. Bob Woodward's State of Denial (published last October) recounts a June 2005 luncheon where Sen. Chuck Hagel had this to say to the President:

"I believe that you are getting really bubbled in here in the White House on Iraq. Do you ever reach outside your inner circle of people, outside your National Security Council?"

Woodward paraphrased Hagel's line in several interviews after the publication of the book, even telling Newsweek that Bush himself acknowledged being "bubbled in after 9/11." There have also been scattered attestations for bubbled-in as a nominal premodifier, such as a July 26, 2006 entry on My Left Wing referring to "the spineless conventional wisdom of bubbled-in D.C. Democrats," and a Nov. 2006 article in The Republic of East Vancouver on "the bubbled-in Bush administration" (implicitly referencing Hagel's criticism). Dowd's latest usage may help popularize the construction further, particularly as it applies to the current presidency.

The figure of a reality-deprived "president in a bubble" goes at least as far back as the 1992 campaign season, when it was directed against the elder Bush. William Safire noted the bubbling-up of the presidential bubble in his Nov. 29, 1992 "On Language" column, comparing the term to earlier uses of cocoon. Ross Perot told Larry King late in the '92 campaign, "Everybody out there except the White House knows the recession is here, and if you lived in that insulated bubble they've created for the President, you wouldn't know it either." Similarly, Bill Clinton was reported as wanting to "burst out of the bubble" surrounding the presidency.

Safire surmised that the metaphor was derived from "the transparent shield used to protect Presidents riding in open cars." I suspect an equally important source is the pop-cultural image of "the boy in the bubble," used to refer to children like David Vetter and Ted DeVita forced to live in sterile plastic bubbles due to immune deficiencies. (A young John Travolta gave a performance inspired by Vetter and DeVita in the 1976 TV movie "The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Satirical iterations include the 1992 Seinfeld episode "The Bubble Boy" and the 2001 film Bubble Boy.)

With the figurative usage of "bubble" established, a verbing of the noun sense was a rather predictable development. "Bubble" joined what Beth Levin classifies as the "POCKET verbs":

These verbs all have zero-related nominals; the related nouns refer to a location where things can be put. The meaning of these verbs can be paraphrased as "put (something) on/in X," where X is the noun that the verb takes its name from... The process of forming verbs of this type is productive, so that this class is likely to grow in size. (Levin, English Verb Classes and Alternations, p. 122)

Verbs in this class often take locative prepositional phrases such as "in (a place)": thus we see "an administration bubbled in its own reality" (June 18, 2006 comment on Kevin Drum's Washington Monthly blog) and "Bush and Cheney still bubbled in unreality" (May 21, 2006 headline for the EITB news service, paraphrasing Al Gore's comment that "the United States has been in a bubble of unreality where global warming is concerned"). A number of the "POCKET verbs" can also be found in verb-particle constructions using in, particularly in the passive, where X-ed in is equivalent to put/kept in X. Examples where the related noun is a type of container include boxed in, caged in, cooped in, and penned in. (Somewhat akin to these are constructions where the related noun is an enclosing barrier: fenced in, walled in, hedged in, hemmed in.) Bubbled in joins right into this family.

I think bubbled in sounds a bit stranger than these other constructions because we're not accustomed to hearing the verb bubble used to convey insularity. Contrast this with more established (intransitive) verb-particle combinations like bubble up and bubble over, where the associated image is that of gaseous bubbles rising up from boiling liquid. The protective plastic bubble encasing a boy or a president is a much newer concept, so it may take a bit longer for the figurative extension of being bubbled in to catch on.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at April 1, 2007 01:15 AM