May 12, 2007

Interesting times

Back on Tuesday, Doonesbury satirized President Bush's verbal style ("Advice to the president: omit needless 'in other words'", 5/8/2007), and yesterday, the strip took another shot at the same target:

In addition to overuse of "in other words", both strips highlighted another verbal tic, one which is lexically and syntactically more variable:

Tuesday:   I find it curious that they would offer comfort to our enemies instead of to our warriors. In other words, offering comfort to our enemies instead of to our warriors is something that I find curious.
Friday: You know what I find interesting? I find it interesting that Congress wants to abandon our troops by defunding them. In other words, Congress wants to abandon our troops without funds, and I find that interesting.

Slate's Complete Bushisms does not seem to have picked up on the idea that President Bush overuses "find X interesting/curious". The word curious doesn't occur at all. The word interesting occurs in five citations, but in four of them, its usage seems normal and reasonable to me, e.g.

"I would have to ask the questioner. I haven't had a chance to ask the questioners the question they've been questioning. On the other hand, I firmly believe she'll be a fine secretary of labor. And I've got confidence in Linda Chavez. She is a—she'll bring an interesting perspective to the Labor Department."—Austin, Texas, Jan. 8, 2001

There's one example where interesting is repeated twice, in a way that is slightly reminiscent of Doonesbury's caricature:

"That's George Washington, the first president, of course. The interesting thing about him is that I read three—three or four books about him last year. Isn't that interesting?"—Showing German newspaper reporter Kai Diekmann the Oval Office, Washington, D.C., May 5, 2006

In the long 4/23/2007 Tipp City speech, where I found 17 repetitions of "in other words", the word curious does not occur. But in that same speech, President Bush uses the word interesting 18 times in about 12,500 words, for a rate of about 1,441 per million.

This does seem to be a high enough rate to notice. Turning to the same reference corpora that we used to calibrate his use of "in other words", interesting occurs in a collection of 2.6 billion words of journalistic text at a rate of 28 per million words, and in 26 million words of English-language conversations, interesting occurs at a rate of 475 per millions words. Thus in the Tripp City speech and Q&A session, President Bush used interesting about three times more often than is typical of English conversation.

That's a much smaller difference than the ones we noted for "in other words", which he used 67 times more often in that same speech than the rate we found in the conversational corpus. But still, three times the background rate is enough to suggest that Doonesbury has targeted a real feature of his verbal style.

And as in the case of "in other words", there's some evidence that overuse of interesting is associated with a semantic shift, or at least a partial one. Most of the president's uses of interesting in the Tripp City transcript seem unremarkable to me, other than in their frequency, but there are a few cases where interesting seems out of place:

So I have a decision point to make, last fall. And the decision point was whether or not to either scale back or increase our presence in Iraq. And that was a difficult decision. It's difficult any time, as I told you, you put a soldier in harm's way. I understand the consequence of committing people into war. The interesting thing is I'm the Commander-in-Chief of an incredibly amazing group of men and women who also understand that consequence, and yet are willing to volunteer.

I found it difficult to put my finger on exactly why this use seems odd. The dictionary definition of interesting is "arousing or holding the attention", and the president might have said "The thing that holds my attention is I'm the commander-in-chief...", without raising the same reaction. But here are two speculations about why the use of interesting seems out of place in this context.

First, when we say "the interesting thing is X", we usually imply that X is something that is not already part of the knowedge we share with our interlocutors. Thus we might try to comfort someone by reminding them, "the important thing is that you have your health", but it would be somewhat odd odd to say "the interesting thing is that you have your health". And there's also an implication that X is intellectually rather than emotionally absorbing -- we might explain a colleague's behavior by informing someone "the key thing is that her mother just died", but it would seem strangely callous to say "the interesting thing is that her mother just died".

Now, it's not common to knock President Bush for being too cerebral, but he often uses interesting in contexts like this, where its lack of emotional resonance is disconcerting:

See, that's the interesting thing that people have got to know. There's threats to your freedom.

Scanning the president's speeches on, I found an interesting piece of evidence that the president recognizes this problem ("President's Remarks in 'Focus on Health Care' Event", 9/13/2004):

And then September the 11th came and it hurt us. I'm going to talk a little bit later on what it meant, in terms of working to secure the homeland. There's some interesting -- not "interesting," really important lessons from that day.

For the most part, though, the problem with Bush's interestings is not misuse but simple overuse ("Remarks by the President at McConnell for Senate and National Republican Senatorial Committee Dinner", ) :

You know, it's interesting, I asked Mitch about what we could do here. I went to New Albany, across the line there, to go to a school -- and I want to share some thoughts about public education in a minute -- but I said, what can we do that would be interesting? And he said one thing -- he said, I want you to talk to McConnell scholars at the University of Louisville. Isn't that interesting?

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 12, 2007 06:49 AM