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Misspeak

I misspoke, you made a mistake, they’re a bunch of liars

Perhaps related to Unspeak, and an example of it, is the phenomenon of Misspeak. Increasingly, we hear politicians who are caught out in deceptions, fantasies or bullshit say, in answer, simply: “I misspoke”. Thus John Mccain, on how he could have imagined that Iran was arming “Al Qaeda”:

I just simply misspoke when I said Al-Qaeda.

And Hillary Clinton was forced to admit that she was not actually being shot at by snipers when she landed in Bosnia in 1996:

So I misspoke.

It is useful, to say one “misspoke”. You acknowledge that what you said was absolute balls, but the fault is not your own, as it would be if you had lied or been wrong. No, the fault is somehow in the faculty of speech itself, something going wrong in the course of that complex magic between brain, lip and others’ ears. Lying (if that’s what it is) is Unspoken as a brief blip of dysphasia. Here‘s an illuminating elaboration of what is being claimed:

Adrianne Marsh, spokeswoman for Sen. Claire McCaskill, has told several news organizations her boss “misspoke” Wednesday when she said Sen. Barack Obama was the first black figure “to come to the American people not as a victim but as a leader.”

McCaskill made the comments at a Kansas City news conference, and were first reported by The Kansas City Star and Prime Buzz.

“This is a classic case where Claire simply misspoke,” Marsh said in a prepared statement. “She’s sorry it came out wrong.”

It came out wrong ! And so the question of whether it was wrong when it was still in is handily sidestepped.

Are there no situations in which it might be reasonable to say one misspoke? We all experience flubs and brainfarts, by way of which what we speak is not what we intended. But it’s a little harder to take “I misspoke” as a credible excuse for things said as prepared remarks, or during a press conference about a situation so basic (as with Iran and “Al Qaeda”) that one is entitled to suspect the claimed Misspeak was Unspeak all along.

Did you hear me say that politicians are, to a man and woman, all a bunch of drug-addicts, thieves, child-molesters and members of “high-class prostitution rings” who lie all day and then the next day lie about having lied? Ah, I misspoke.

25 comments
  1. 1  richard  March 25, 2008, 2:12 pm 

    I haven’t heard the term “liar” or seen anyone accused of lying in mainstream media for a long, long time: perhaps the very word is becoming taboo. I remember Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Perle, Powell and Gonzales all pleading incompetence as a defense against charges of malfeasance over the past 7 years, and “misspeaking” seems to be another instance of the same tactic. Perhaps we’ll see it expand next to any and all actions: “I hired prostitutes on a regular basis, snorted coke off their behinds, launched irresponsible wars and destroyed education policy? Apparently that was a series of mistakes: I was just being incompetent. Now we all have to work extra hard to put it all back together again…”

  2. 2  Steven  March 25, 2008, 4:27 pm 

    You could say “I misdid”, thus implying, as with “misspoke”, that you really meant to perform some other actions but some synaptic gremlin meant that it “came out” as you snorting kilos of cocaine off a “high-class prostitute”. I look forward to seeing this useful development take place.

    As for calling people “liars”, I believe there is actually a rule in Parliament that you’re not allowed to call a liar a liar but can only claim, at the strongest, that a member has “misled Parliament”. (I meant to lead you in the right direction, but owing to the difficulty of the terrain/a cloudy night etc, I misled you.)

  3. 3  John Fallhammer  March 25, 2008, 5:19 pm 

    “Misled” is one of the words that I always desperately want to mispronounce (to sound like “misered”).

    We might also add the written equivalent: the typographical error. That doesn’t even have the excuse of being speech but people still try it on even when it’s plainly untrue (and on the Internet they usually throw in an unconvincing claim of dyslexia).

    (Oh dear, the Google sidebar is offering me Mr Goldberg’s recent book at 40% off. So tempting.)

  4. 4  WIIIAI  March 25, 2008, 6:07 pm 

    Yes, the parliamentary rule is that nouns are bad but verbs are okay. Evidently they’re just more polite.

    As for McCaskill’s words “coming out wrong,” I believe what is meant is that she spoke out of the wrong orifice.

  5. 5  Alex Higgins  March 25, 2008, 7:58 pm 

    “I haven’t heard the term “liar” or seen anyone accused of lying in mainstream media for a long, long time: perhaps the very word is becoming taboo.”

    Actually it is frequently used in the mainstream media in the US – just not against Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Perle, Powell and Gonzales.

    The term is regularly reserved for Democrats, such as Al Gore and John Edwards for claims they ironically did not actually make.

    The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen (‘The Mendacity of Hope) wrote rather a staggering column in which he accused several politicians of lying, concentrating on Barack Obama for claiming that there are more black men in prison than in college in the US. Obama was actually correct, and Cohen was wrong, but you don’t have a newspaper column, do you, so what you’re going to do about it?

    And of course Bill Clinton, was accurately called out for lying during what I think Philip Roth called the summer of cocksucking.

    The Cohen article (‘The Mendacity of Hope’ – cute, no?) is revealing – and it takes swipes at Republicans too. But the accusation of lying is used here almost entirely for trivial matters – mistresses, haircuts, personal biographies.

    It is not used in the establishment press for even the most blatant lying about issues that really matter (Iraq, torture, wire-tapping, coroprate corruption, global warming etc). Indeed using the l-word is frowned on in this context and is a sign that the user is partisan, shrill and a blogger (which are all terrible, terrible things).

    I think we can reasonably predict that Hillary Clinton will be dubbed a liar for making up a story about her personal experience, while John McCain will not be called a liar for repeatedly stating that al-Qa’ida operatives are trained in Iran.

  6. 6  Walter Dufresne  March 25, 2008, 8:21 pm 

    It’s old age that recalls a story from a third of a century ago, from Time Magazine (30 April 1973) entitled “It’s Inoperative: They Misspoke Themselves”:

    “The Nixon Administration has developed a new language—a kind of Nix-speak. Government officials are entitled to make flat statements one day, and the next day reverse field with the simple phrase, “I misspoke myself.” White House Press Secretary Ronald Ziegler enlarged the vocabulary last week, declaring that all of Nixon’s previous statements on Watergate were “inoperative.” Not incorrect, not misinformed, not untrue—simply inoperative, like batteries gone dead.”

    Current US government officials *have* learned a thing or three from their predecessors.

  7. 7  dsquared  March 25, 2008, 9:59 pm 

    “Misled” is one of the words that I always desperately want to mispronounce (to sound like “misered”).

    WVO Quine claimed in his book “Quiddities” that it should be pronounced “mizzled”, and was the past participle of “misling“, that being a lineal ancestor of Unspeak.

  8. 8  Gregor  March 25, 2008, 10:44 pm 

    ‘The term is regularly reserved for Democrats, such as Al Gore and John Edwards for claims they ironically did not actually make.’

    Yes, oddly enough on message boards you still get right wing idiots saying that Al Gore claimed to have invented the internet. It’s amazing how long some lies last.

  9. 9  Alex Higgins  March 25, 2008, 11:37 pm 

    ‘“Misled” is one of the words that I always desperately want to mispronounce (to sound like “misered”)’.

    I actually did misread it for many years of my rapidly disappearing youth as “my-zuld”. As in the verb to misle, which I assumed was a more delicate way of saying deceive.

    I find the self-satisfaction derived from inventing this verb helps deal with the shame and embarrassment of failing to read a simple word correctly for so long.

  10. 10  Alex Higgins  March 25, 2008, 11:43 pm 

    “Yes, oddly enough on message boards you still get right wing idiots saying that Al Gore claimed to have invented the internet.”

    And indeed in newspapers like the Times, by people who were paid more money than I earn in a month to write it. Not that I like to seethe at the injustice of it all or anything.

  11. 11  Alex Higgins  March 26, 2008, 12:03 am 

    On a separate note…

    I quite liked the option to edit our comments within 5 minutes of submitting them, Steven. For some reason, that’s the time when I notice all my mistakes. But it seems to have been removed. Pity.

    Also, the new format seems a little bit cluttered. I thought it was fine before.

    But then, my opinion is never solicited on the subject of web formatting and who knows, there may be a reason.

  12. 12  Steven  March 26, 2008, 12:51 am 

    I love having such demanding readers! Very well. I had turned the edit-your-comment feature turned off because the thing that does it hammers the database and so contributes to annoyingly slow page-loading times. I’ve turned it back on for the moment but can’t promise it will stay. As for clutter in the slightly refreshed design, I’m not really sure. I find it less cluttered now, and somehow more relaxing with the wider page. Maybe I should have a poll?

    Walter: thank you for the lovely story re Nixon misspeaking himself. “My previous statements are inoperative” is great, too. It makes me think of sleeper agents, or defused bombs.

    And dsquared – thanks for misling, of which my favourite example was the one about the fish:

    I am told of a canner of salmon whose product was consistently white instead of the canonical pink. He made a spurious virtue of this chromatic deficiency by proclaiming “Guaranteed not to turn red in the can.”

    I will have to order a copy of Quiddities.

  13. 13  Lloyd Mintern  March 26, 2008, 4:14 am 

    Hilary said she “has a different memory” of that event. This is technically different from “remembering it differently.” There are singular facts (sniper fire) in her spoken account, so it actually has to be a different occasion–can’t be just a hazy misspoken one of the one in question. This has sent reporters scurrying to find out if perhaps at some other time Hilary ever ducked sniper fire, and she is possibly switching the memory of one event (the one that was caught on film!), with another. Which is obviously could only bear strange fruit, since such an event would be even more likely to be on film. And then she could say: “oh, of course, I was talking about THAT sniper fire.”

    It’s looking like another one of those Clintonesque “depends upon what the meaning of “is” is” moments.

  14. 14  Guano  March 26, 2008, 12:47 pm 

    I have the strong impression that our political and media elite make statements without thinking about their meaning: they are simply a list of “talking points” that don’t necessarily have to be true. And they don’t expect other members of that elite to cast doubt on these talking points: the only people who do that are “obsessives” or “unserious” commentators. These talking points are made up by spin-doctors who start with a narrative and then find facts to fit into this narrative (we don’t like Iran, we don’t like Al-Qaida, therefore Iran and Al-Qaida are working together). They don’t ask themselves “is this true?”. They only ask “could we say this (without it being too obvious that we’ve made it up)?”

    It is clear that the attitude to Iran or Saddam or Al-Qaida is that they are evil therefore the political and media elite believe that they can say anything about them, whether or not it is true. Any old talking point is grist to the mill. People were making speeches about babies and incubators during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait long after grave doubts were thrown on this factoid. In the UK parliament in mid-February 2003, Blair and the Tory leader were both saying that we should invade Iraq because troops had been sent to guard Heathrow airport (without providing any evidence linking Iraq to the threat to UK airports). A talking point that keeps popping up is that the UK/USA thought that Iraq had WMD because Saddam falsely claimed that it did. No evidence is provided about when or where Iraq claimed to have WMD, and it is a bit illogical to say this while at the same time saying that Saddam was a liar because he said Iraq didn’t have WMD. The attitude seems to be that it’s OK to say it because it’s just a talking point and it cannot have been our own fault that we were wrong about WMD so it must have been Saddam’s fault.

  15. 15  richard  March 26, 2008, 3:04 pm 

    You could say “I misdid”

    …and amazingly not be called to account for your misdeeds!
    I’m waiting for one of the Bushies to offer the new standard non-apology; “my bad,” which admits that what the accuser says is true, but suggests that the harm done isn’t really serious. At least it would go down better than Cheney’s “so?”

  16. 16  Alex Higgins  March 26, 2008, 7:31 pm 

    Oh, I’m not making demands, just expressing preferences.

    It’s your fault, anyway. You previously asked readers about the design of the site and now I have delusions that my opinions might be important.

    I read Melanie Phillips and I know that such experiments with liberalism can only lead to chaos, anarchy and darkness for all civilisation.

  17. 17  ukliberty  March 26, 2008, 11:17 pm 

    As for calling people “liars”, I believe there is actually a rule in Parliament that you’re not allowed to call a liar a liar but can only claim, at the strongest, that a member has “misled Parliament”.

    Erskine May states that “good temper and moderation are the characteristics of parliamentary language”.

    Any euphemism for “liar” seems fine in practice so long as you don’t, in essence, accuse someone of intending to deceive. For example, you have to say “inadvertently misled” rather than merely “misled”.

    But curiously you can accuse someone of “painting a completely misleading picture”.

    (incidentally your Preview box doesn’t seem to like multiple hyperlinks)

  18. 18  Jasper Milvain  March 27, 2008, 10:56 pm 

    “Avoid imputing bad intentions” is a standard point in the how-to-avoid-a-libel-case advice to English trainee journalists; it’s said to be particularly likely to annoy your target, and particularly hard to stand up. “Lie” and “liar” (especially – because it suggests the target makes a habit of it) are mentioned as words to avoid on that basis. I know American libel law is less feared than its British equivalent, but there may still be considerations of danger as well as decorum.

    Besides, the right euphemism can do more damage. The day after Peter Mandelson’s second resignation, the Sun, inserting heavy sans caps into the run of text for emphasis, said he’d “LIED“. The Mail said he’d “fallen victim to his inability to tell the truth”. Even a Washington Post reporter might take a certain pride in being able to make an article scream “LIAR” without saying it.

  19. 19  Bowser  April 2, 2008, 10:23 am 

    Does Victoria Coren pay you royalties?
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/comm.....ctions2008

  20. 20  Steven  April 2, 2008, 1:45 pm 

    I wish.

  21. 21  Picador  April 15, 2008, 4:59 pm 

    A late comment, but there should be an ongoing compilation of these.

    Via Orcinus today, on the subject of Repub Geoff Davis calling Obama “boy”:

    But Davis campaign spokesman said Davis misspoke and was not directing a racist statement at Obama but instead calling into question his qualifications for office.

    “He simply misspoke,” said Jeremy Hughes, Davis’ campaign spokesman.

    Original story here.

    Of course, naming your kid after the President of the Confederacy pretty much guarantees he’ll turn into a white supremacist. His parents are probably ashamed of him for apologizing.

  22. 22  Steven  April 19, 2008, 12:36 pm 

    Hendrik Hertzberg on misspeaking in the New Yorker.

  23. 23  Ben W.  April 21, 2008, 12:49 pm 

    Suspiciously similar? Both articles kick off with the same two examples and say similar things…

    Poole:
    the fault is not your own, as it would be if you had lied or been wrong. No, the fault is somehow in the faculty of speech itself, something going wrong in the course of that complex magic between brain, lip and others’ ears.

    Hertzberg:
    It carries the suggestion that, while the politician’s perfectly functioning brain has dispatched the correct signals, the mouth has somehow received and transmitted them in altered form.

  24. 24  Steven  April 21, 2008, 3:34 pm 

    Entirely coincidental, I’m sure. Anyway, Hertzberg has been writing stuff about language now and again since before I published Unspeak.

    Also: I met him once, and he’s very nice.

  25. 25  Sohail  May 9, 2008, 9:36 am 

    You know, I was just thinking that if we’re gonna’ have misspeak, then it’s only right in this age of gender equality, that we also have misterspeak, don’t you think?

    Okay, joking aside, mispeak is the verbal equivalent of making out that you inadvertenly just kicked someone in the balls. It’s like deliberately spilling coffee on some dude’s nice Armani suit. Or better still, it’s like sneezing in someone’s face, and then saying something like, ‘I’m so sorry; I somehow missneezed’.

    Sohail



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