Dark Bilious Vapors

But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors....
--Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation I

Home » Archives » September 2005 » What's in a Word (Choice) ??

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09/26/2005: What's in a Word (Choice) ??

George and Mrs. Malaprop:

"It is difficult to listen to George Bush speak and not think of Mrs. Malaprop, a very memorable character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals, who had the habit of substituting contextually inappropriate words that often bear a certain (usually phonetic) similarity to an appropriate one. Another word that springs immediately to consciousness when thinking of characters in novels and George Bush is "falstaffian," which originated from the name, Sir John Falstaff, who was a character in Henry IV, Parts I and II, and The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare. This character is famous for saying, "Discretion is the better part of valor" (because it saves ones life).

President Bush definitely took heed of Falstaff's advice when he joined the National Guard during the Vietnam War. Let's focus, however, on possible accounts of President Bush's propensity to use contextually inappropriate words. I can think of four. Bush is a Nitwit; Bush is an Ignoramus; Bush is a Sociopath; and Bush may have some sort of speech disorder, perhaps a mild case of anomia.

George Bush has come up with some fairly amazing malapropisms, some of which are presented at the web site, Fun-With-Words, which provides examples from others as well.

(1) "I am mindful not only of preserving executive powers for myself, but for predecessors as well."

(2) "Natural gas is hemispheric... because it is a product that we can find in our neighborhoods."

(3) "The law I sign today directs new funds... to the task of collecting vital intelligence... on weapons of mass production."

(4) "Oftentimes, we live in a processed world, you know, people focus on the process and not results."
The question arises as to why George Bush makes so many such mistakes. One hypothesis is that he is a nitwit who is controlled by right wing zealots who do their best to protect him from himself by keeping him as far away from microphones as possible.

One might argue that this is hard to square with his Yale bachelor's degree and his MBA from Harvard. These are prestigious schools. The fact is, however, that a school like Yale has historically been a lot harder to get into than to get out of. But, if Yale is hard to get into, how did George Bush get in? It is clear that he got into Yale as a legacy admittee. According to the New Yorker magazine (I am quoting from a secondary source) Bush's verbal and math SAT scores were 180 points below the median for Yale, which suggests he may not have gotten in on his merits. But, of course, Ivy League schools are notorious for accepting legacy applicants because this encourages rich alums to give money to grease the admission wheels. Bush admitted he was a legacy entrant when he once replied to a question, saying, "I thought you were referring to my legacy," Bush said. "In my case, I had to knock on a lot of doors to follow the old man."

Once in, Bush had it made for Ivy league schools are also notoriously easy to get out of. In the 90's, the graduation rate at Yale was in the mid-90's. Maybe they have gotten lax, but I doubt it. So, it is reasonable to assume that President Bush not only eased into Yale, but he eased out as well. He was certainly not a very good student, saying himself in a Yale commencement ceremony, "To the C students I say, you, too, can be president of the United States."

It is alleged that George Bush was also a legacy admittee to the Harvard Business School as well, my source being the the article referred to that itself makes reference to the New Yorker. Certainly, someone who was not just a C student at Yale but also was in the 21st percentile of his class and who had never worked in business would not normally be admitted to the Harvard Business School. I have no data on how hard it is to graduate from the HBS.

So, the Nitwit Thesis has some legs as an account of Bush's propensity to misspeak. However, getting bad grades and getting into major private universities (dare I mention the National Guard as well?) because of who is father is, is not proof that President Bush is stupid -- that Karl Rove, as is believed by some, is Bush's Brain. Many perfectly intelligent people have skated through academia with bad grades but performed excellently in the post-graduate world.

There is a closely related thesis that might explain Bush's malapropisms and this is that he is simply ignorant -- this his education at Yale and Harvard fell on deaf ears. There is a good reason Ms. Condaleza Rice joined him as he tried to prepare to be President: he knew little or nothing about the world. And one characteristic of an ignorant person is that he or she will butcher the language in the process of trying to express himself or herself on matters of some complexity. I am myself reduced to false starts, monosyllables, and speaking with my hands when trying to communicate with carpenters, for instance. In my book on The Language of Politics (now going for the alarming price of $230 -- don't buy it at that price!!!) I discussed some problems President Reagan had with the language when speaking extemporaneously. In his case, I suspected he routinely did not understand the policies of his administration. Since I don't actually know what Bush did or didn't know at any given time, I won't pursue this Bush is an Ignoramus hypothesis attractive though it may be to some.

There is one particularly scary theory of the origin of Bush's malapropisms, and this is that Bush is a sociopath who is verbally facile when speaking of violence and punishment but falls apart when he comes to domestic policies. This Sociopath Thesis is due to Mark Crispin Miller in his book, The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder. One can find a discussion of Miller's thesis in a Toronto Star story by Murray Whyte. This is an amazing thesis but Miller is not alone in holding it. Now, I can believe that most Right Wing zealots are sociopaths to a degree. How else can one explain their utter lack of empathy with those who exist in poverty and suffer from the psychologically damaging and economically limiting effects of racial and ethnic and other forms of prejudice? But the claim that Bush is a sociopath wants some proving. Since Miller's thesis is predicated on a contrast in fluency when talking about violence and when talking about such things as domestic policy, all it would take to knock down the argument is some examples of Bush waxing malapropistically when discussing war, violence, punishment, and the like. In fact, example (3) above would seem to be a case. But the principle underlying Miller's thesis is totally nutty, namely that if a person P is reduced to malaprops and other forms of gibberish when discussing topics of Type T1 but is fluent when discussing topics of Type T2, then there will be a psychological disorder that accounts for the fluency in discussing topics of Type T2.

I have long observed a person who was employed by a radio station in a city I once lived in whose verbal skills were even worse than Bush's. When he talked about sports, especially his favorite sports, he was typically reasonably fluent. But when the show drifted to topics within the sociology of sports verbal errors came flying out of his mouth at an alarming rate. Over time, he improved. He now has a national gig where his focus is exclusively on football and he does reasonably well. There are momentary problems but he is a competent and popular analyst. Now, is this person stupid? I am inclined to think that he isn't because he has a sophisticated understanding of the complexities of American football -- and believe me when I say that that knowledge is not easily acquired. He has a college degree as well but, as we all know, that means nothing but that the person is persistent. Suppose, then, that we move on to a hypothesis along the lines of Miller's Sociopath Thesis for Bush for this sports analyst. The problem is that there is no psychological disorder that can be associated with great verbal facility when talking football, but a lot of verbal blundering when talking about such things as the sociology of sports.

This presents a bit of a problem with Miller's thesis since what is good for the goose (a psychological account of Bush's differential verbal skills) is good for the gander (a psychological account of our sport's personality's differential verbal skills).

There is another possibility that would cover both Bush and the sports analyst and this is that they suffer from some sort of verbal disorder that leads them to be exhibit a certain amount of anomia especially in contexts in which their knowledge is limited to some degree or the person is under stress (i. e., speaking to thousands or even millions of people). I have absolutely no evidence for this but it is the hypothesis that scares me the least. I would much rather believe that Bush has mild anomia than that he is stupid, ignorant, or a sociopath.

I am not an expert on this but if any can direct me to an expert's discussion of this possibility I would appreciate it."

The Language Guy.

Karen on 09.26.05 @ 11:33 AM CST

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