Thursday, September 15, 2005

George Bush 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.

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Blogger The Language Guy said...

There is plenty in a name -- mostly positive and negative connotations or associations -- but the name can't change the thing. It can change the connotations and associations we make with the name. If we changed the name "rose" to "thorn flower" I think that it would one day cease to have its appeal to women. Calling the wild roses on our property "roses" has not increased their appeal to me. I get nailed by them on a regular basis.

4:15 PM

Blogger Aadil Mukhtar said...

there is too mush to be considered in a name... lan.. guy.. you arte right name can't change the thing.. good post..

you can visit my blog at I LOVE KASHMIR

1:47 PM

Blogger Captain Blah said...

Yhis is an interesting article, Mike. Of course, there is a well known type of psychological disorder which might account for some of the things you discuss - the conversion disorder (sometimes known as conversion anxiety). It occurs when anxiety translates into a physical symptom. Take, for example, aphonia - a disorder of speech. The sufferer is unable to speak in much above a whisper. Famously, this afflicts college lecturers and preachers. In other words, the symptom prevents them from carrying out the feared activity and nothing (or little) else.

Another example comes from the Korean war. US army medics noted that a significant number of 'gunners' - who sat in a particularly dangerous spot at the rear of aeroplanes - were developing blindness. None of those examined showed a neurological/physiological basis for the loss of sight. It was further noted that those on night crews were developing night-blindness, and could see normally during ther day.

When interviewing these men, the doctors began lobbing tennis balls at their heads - a significant number of the men ducked or otherwise avoided impact. And even still, they denied ever seeing the balls, and were at a loss to explain thier reactions.

In terms of Bush's use of incorrect or inappropriate words, Freud's concept of the parapraxis might be of interest. This is sometimes known as a 'slip.' It occurs when something from the unconscious collides with a conscious intention. A 'wrong' word appearing in a sentence is sometimes referred to as a conjunctive parapraxis.

Oh, and I think it is very possible that Bush is a sociopath - there are a lot of them around, you know.

And, yes, I also think that he is truly dumb.

Keep up the good work, Mike -- great blog.

5:45 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the problem that we encounter with this discussion is that particularly the last two theories depend upon knowledge of the mental condition of George Bush, somehting which, despite how easy it would be, cannot be simply understood from the way in which they speak. The way in which Bush speaks sets off alarm bells in by brain everytime I hear it, and the conclusion which I always come to is "ignoramus". I cannot believe that he is totally stupid (since he did, after all, manage to become President of the United States of America), and as I mentioned the last two ideas (interesting though they are) cannot be proved without in-depth analysis. Thus it seems to be the only logical conclusion. However, as many things are, this is of course a matter of opinion. It is unlikely to be resolved whilst Bush is still in power, or even for many years after. I just am glad I live in the United Kingdom, which even the right wing party is more left wing than George.

6:22 PM

Blogger theamazingcatherine said...

Dear Mr Geis,

I find your column very interesting. I find this article on malapropism especially interesting. In another of your articles, 'No Alcohol Added' you seem to be giving a graphic example of it:

"Interestingly, some of the oil companies sold both gasohol and gasoline at filling stations in some areas but in others they sold only gasoline and put up signs that disparaged gasoline."

I am unsure why the store would be disparaging its own product, and this statement seems to undercut the thesis of your article. There is another instance in the same article where "All but one of the defendants had gone broke," though you later mention that it was the plaintiffs in financial difficulties.

It seems to me that similar terms (gasoline/gasohol and plaintiffs/defendants) have been transposed. If I'm wrong (and misread your article) then I apologise.

If it was a transposition - well, they're easy to do. However, both of these examples seriously interfere with the readibility of your work. Feel free to call me an interfering baggage if you wish, but I would prefer that a blog named 'The Language Guy' would be proof-read more carefully.

My apologies if I spoiled your day.

Catherine Pegg

1:56 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent article, I think this is one of the mysteries of the 21st century that really needs to be solved and you've got some interesting hypotheses. Let me throw one at you that isn't quite so obvious: Bush isn't a bad speaker at all. He's faking it in a very conscious and extremely well-orchestrated effort to appear like an average guy, which is arguably what got him elected over much more geeky and stuffy types like Gore and Kerry. People can actually relate to him stumbling over words they don't know how to use correctly either. In any case, what for me is butchering the English language and an utter lack of eloquence certainly doesn't seem to hurt Bush in the polls. I would be very suprised if Karl Rove failed to notice this. So Occam's Razor may not look kindly upon this kind of paranoia, but I once saw footage of Bush giving a speech before he became a household word. He was witty and eloquent and used a number of big words like he know precisely what they meant. He came off as arrogant and conceited - but whip smart. The contrast is almost too stark to explain any other way.

6:26 AM

Blogger Bahu Virupaksha said...

I think George Orwell in his "Politics and the English Language" said that when we start speaking in a denenerate, chaotic and incoherent manner then it could only mean that we are living in a moral and intellectual space in which there is no place for conscience and sentient thought. George Bush is a prime example of this kind of a person who cannot articulate his thoughts clearly because he lacks the intellectual resources for sustained thought.

6:38 AM

Blogger Captain Blah said...

Just a quick comment on the comment on my comment, if you know what I mean -- true, we do not have an in-depth knowledge of Bush's (limited, I suspect) mental life. And, indeed, we cannot come to firm conclusions. However, this does not prevent intelligent, reasoned deduction.

If we see a man with dark glasses and a white stick attempting to cross a busy road, we offer to help guide him. We do not make a conditional offer of help, contingent upon a series of neurological tests. In other words we make an intelligent, reasoned deduction. Most clinical practioners in menatl health will tell you that that is all they can ever do, even with the benifit of many sessions with a subject.

Also, people reveal a lot about their inner selves through their speech, if you listen carefully - sometimes even if you don't.

10:45 AM

Blogger porchwise said...

Obviously you have fingers on keys quite often and, if you think as I do, my blog is mostly exercise-- a warm up for the more important things I write. I scan my blog for obvious errors only; my novels are another matter entirely. They pay.
BTW, I found all your essay's interesting and plan on checking in often.

3:26 PM

Blogger Captain Blah said...

I agree - childhood cruelty to animals is a significant marker for the psychopathic personality. And certainly, Bush has caused a lot of death with his policies - not that I am accusing him of murder, but there are a lot of dead people in the middle east as a result of his decisions. The bizarre twist is that many of those who died in the American invasion and occupation of Iraq probably hated Saddam more than the invaders (indeed, until recently Saddam was America's friend and many of his cruellest acts were carried out during this period).

I think that this presidency will be viewed by history as a tragic and sad time, the point when America lost all its friends - for, despite what the political classes say, the people of the world now view the US as a savage bully-boy state. Most British people I know are positively embarrased by Blair's efforts to curry favour with the White House.

Sad days, very sad days.

2:35 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would you please explaine why your book is priced at $225.00
Is it full of lithographs?
Are there fairy wings pressed between the pages?
I need to know.

6:08 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, I meant explain.

6:09 PM

Blogger Saharan Wind said...

I found this online Bush dictionary for people who have problems understanding baby Bush. It's hillarious!!!!! My stomach was hurting from laughter. In the end, I hope I lost weight from this laughter!!!


2:22 AM

Blogger PRO AETATIS said...

a fellow Illini alum! and another escapee from the horrendous Foreign Languages Building. I got a classics MA from there in '00. I am enjoying your blog immensely. Feel free to check mine out as well, though it isn't nearly as intellecutal as yours.

ex animo,


3:35 PM

Blogger fivesight said...

I tend to subscribe to the sociopath theory, with a nitwit or an ignoramus subtheme. The reason I believe the sociopath theory may be correct is because of my recent reading of George Lakoff's 'Don't think of an Elephant', where I was made aware of the frame of reference from which the religious right operates. It seems a mad scientist named Dobson (who has taught millions that beating children is the only way to teach them, that the wealthy are so because they deserve it, and the poor exist in their bemoaned state because of their lack of discipline) is the chief thinker of the right, as once was the scholar William F. Buckley. Compared to Buckley's elegant arguments and manners, (responsible, in my opinion, for the swing to practical conservatism shortly after Nixon) the opinions of Bush's political tribe are absolutely barbaric, designed to prey on the minds of the ignorant and apathetic. The nitwit theme so prevalent in his verbal skills leads me to believe that brain damage may be at the root of his problem, which may be a language processing difficulty rather than a speech defect alone.

9:00 AM

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12:17 PM

Blogger V. said...

hi! while looking for malapropism i came across your blog.

love your article

i tend to believe that Bush doesn't have any mental disorder at all and that he's just a ...complete ignorant.

i can't believe why he still have supporters and why people still go and vote him.

anyway, ill check your other articles:D

take care

10:32 PM


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