October 12, 2007

The direct responsibility of me

What British prime minister Gordon Brown said when asked if he was personally responsible for calling off the election he had been widely rumored to be planning for, he told the press: "Anything that happens in Downing Street is the direct responsibility of me and I will always take that full responsibility myself." Very unusual wording there: "the direct responsibility of me".

It would have sounded so much more natural for him to assign the responsibility to the office, and say: "Anything that happens in Downing Street is the direct responsibility of the prime minister." What makes "of me" so unusual is that there is a monosyllabic genitive form of the first person singular pronoun, namely my, so normally people will say "my responsibility" or "my spouse" rather than "the responsibility of me" or "the spouse of me". Perhaps it was a planning screw-up: he first embarked on "Anything that happens in Downing Street is the direct responsibility of the prime minister" and then decided on a mid-course correction from "the prime minister" — the third-person reference to himself might have sounded pompous — and changed the last noun phrase to "me". What he ended up with sounded strangely inept. An ill-planned sentence to end an ill-planned week.

I say it was an ill-planned week because the British press and the opposition in parliament have absolutely jumped all over Brown about that election he never said he would call. They've been accusing him of "bottling" it. The verb, which is unfamiliar to me in this sense (though I know the phrase "a lot of bottle", meaning "a great deal of courage and aggressive attitude", which is quite the opposite of what they're saying Gordon Brown has), seems to be a terrible accusation of cowardice. Conservative Party activists have been dressing up as bottles with Brown-like faces to taunt him. A terrible week, and a sentence-planning fiasco to cap it all, poor man.

[Update: Several people have pointed out to me that the phrase the boss of me is becoming familiar. Among other things, You're not the boss of me is the title of a song by They Might Be Giants, and the phrase is starting spread via blogs like this one and this one.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 12, 2007 11:49 AM