Monday, February 13, 2012

Language Barrier

Paul Krugman notes that Mitt Romney has a language problem.

Mitt Romney has a gift for words — self-destructive words. On Friday he did it again, telling the Conservative Political Action Conference that he was a “severely conservative governor.”

As Molly Ball of The Atlantic pointed out, Mr. Romney “described conservatism as if it were a disease.” Indeed. Mark Liberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, provided a list of words that most commonly follow the adverb “severely”; the top five, in frequency of use, are disabled, depressed, ill, limited and injured.

That’s clearly not what Mr. Romney meant to convey. Yet if you look at the race for the G.O.P. presidential nomination, you have to wonder whether it was a Freudian slip. For something has clearly gone very wrong with modern American conservatism.

When George W. Bush was president, a cottage industry grew up based on his malapropisms. There were enough of them that there was a daily calendar of Bushisms such as “Is our children learning?” and “Make the pie higher,” and you could get t-shirts, mugs and other tchotchkes festooned with them. In Mr. Bush’s case, it wasn’t the sentiment, it was the syntax. All he needed was to debug the vocal subroutine.

Mitt Romney and the rest of the current GOP field cannot make the same excuse. Mr. Malaprop, in the person of Rick Perry, has gone back to his offensively-named ranch, and Michele Bachmann is back on Sacred Sperm patrol in Stillwater, Minnesota. The Sarah Palin Cliche Festival closed out of town. So all we’re left with is a collection of fairly articulate white guys who say what they think out loud and can’t blame it on being tongue-tied. Their little maxims such as “Corporations are people, my friend,” and “Contraception is not okay” are rehearsed. Some media adviser was actually paid to come up with rationales for each of them, and they can’t argue that they’re taken out of context. And even if they were, Mr. Romney’s campaign has already provided us with the justification that “He said it” regardless of the context is good enough to run with.

It used to be that we laughed when a presidential candidate would say something really out there and mangled it in the process. Now they’re saying it like they really mean it.