June 09, 2004

At long last

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of an event that should not go unremarked on Language Log: it's exactly half a century today since a pair of well-crafted sentences rang out across a Congressional hearings room in Washington DC and began a process that was of great importance to the integrity and honor of our country:

Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

In the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy was famous for his aggressive anti-communist stance, and speeches in which he claimed to be in possession of long lists of names of communists in the State department, the military, and elsewhere in government. He made full use of his position as chair of the Senate Committee on Government Operations and its Permanent Committee on Investigations. He destroyed the careers of many people by claiming that they had belonged to communist front organizations or associated with communists. His success at this owed a lot to the fact that he was able to play (as Harvard law dean Erwin Griswold put it) "judge, jury, prosecutor, castigator, and press agent, all in one."

On June 9 in 1954, McCarthy was pursuing a somewhat peripheral vendetta against the Army over the drafting of a member of his staff. The vendetta had already dragged through over thirty days of Congressional hearings. At one point, out of sheer malice, McCarthy decided to place into the record the quite gratuitous information that the law firm representing the Army, Hale and Dorr of Boston, employed a young lawyer, Fred Fisher, who — though he was by this time a Republican — had once (in law school and for a few months thereafter) belonged to a chapter of a leftist organization, the Lawyer's Guild.

Fisher was not even on the team that was representing the Army in the case at hand in Washington; he worked in the Hale and Dorr's Boston office and had nothing to do with the case at hand. But his career could well be over if he was publicly smeared as a communist, and that would be a blow McCarthy could strike against the senior Hale and Dorr attorney who was representing the Army, Joseph Welch. As McCarthy launched into the speech that would place it on record that Fisher had been in the Lawyer's Guild, Welch went on the offensive, arguing against him fiercely, castigating him personally ("Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness"), begging him not to go on. "Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator; you've done enough," he cried; and as McCarthy showed that he was going to go on regardless, Welch added: "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?". (The quote is often given with Have you no shame? included, but that is not what Welch said; see the transcript here or the quotation from official Senate history files here; the latter gives a link to the PDF version of the full original hearings. For an NPR report with the original audio, go to NPR's rundown list and click on the relevant story.)

From the moment of Welch's eloquent and much-quoted utterance, Joseph McCarthy's reputation started to wane, and before long it had collapsed. He lost his popularity with the public (his altercation with Welch was seen live on TV, and the newspapers the next day recorded in print for those who didn't see it). Ultimately he was censured by his Senate colleagues. When he died three years later after a period of alcohol abuse he was a broken man. Never was there a clearer example to show that sometimes, in the face of real evil and dangerous power, one person can stand up and win a battle with a simple speech act.

[Note for syntacticians: Welch's syntax is rather old-fashioned for American English (though not so much for British speech): his famous outburst has two features that are rare in American speech and one that is rare in every dialect. (In what follows I put "[%]" in front of a sentence if only some Standard English speakers would accept it.) First, the sentence illustrates subject-auxiliary inversion with the possession sense of have, which Americans don't use much any more (they tend to say Do you have a pencil? rather than [%]Have you a pencil?). Second, his utterance also uses non-verbal negation, which is less common (and more formal) than verbal negation (Americans say I don't have a pencil rather than [%]I have no pencil). And third, the second sentence, Have you left no sense of decency?, shows a rather unusual adjunct placement for left (Americans would say Don't you have any pencils left rather than [%]Don't you have left any pencils?). At long last sounds a bit odd, too; Welch means it in the sense "Hasn't this gone on long enough?", which is not quite the same as the modern sense "finally" (as in At long last Iraq has an Iraqi-led government), though of course they are close. Fifty years is not a long time in language change, but already English is sounding a little different from when Welch spoke.]

[Small revisions made to the text after fact-checking on June 10th, 2004, and a spelling correction on October 13, 2006. —GKP] Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at June 9, 2004 07:10 PM