Overspeaking

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I thought that Tucker Carlson was being lexically creative when he walked back his statement that Michael Vick should have been executed for his dogfighting sins:

"This is what happens when you get too emotional," Carlson said [...] "I'm a dog lover…I love them and I know a lot about what Michael Vick did … I overspoke. I'm uncomfortable with the death penalty in any circumstance. Of course I don't think he should be executed, but I do think that what he did is truly appalling."

But no: overspeak is a well-attested word, which the OED glosses as "trans. To overstate or exaggerate; to make exaggerated claims for" or "intr. To speak too strongly, to exaggerate; to speak too much. Also trans. (refl.)". There are relevant citations back to the 17th century:

a1661 T. Fuller Worthies (1662) Hants. 5   Seing ill usage‥may make a Sober man Overspeak in his passion.

The OED's entry for overspeak also includes this intriguing and somewhat shocking quote:

1935 S. Ervin & W. M. Bennett Henry Ford vs. Truman H. Newberry xvii. 551   Of course, as the ‘niggers’ say, he may have ‘overspoke himself’, but still he is not a ‘nigger’.

The cited work is Spencer Ervin, Henry Ford vs. Truman H. Newberry: The Famous Senate Election Contest. (A Study in American Politics, Legislation and Justice), 1935.  A full-text version of this book, as digitized by Google, is available from the Hathi Trust. From its introduction:

At the general election of 1918 Truman H. Newberry was elected United States Senator from Michigan, having previously won the Republican nomination in a vigorous primary context against Henry Ford. In this primary context between two wealthy candidates a large amount of money was spent; sums very far in excess of the maximum limit prescribed by the Corrupt Practices Act. Accordingly, Senator Newberry was haled before a Federal court and convicted of having been a party to the violation of this law. The conviction, however, was appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled, in a five-to-four decision, that Congress had exceeded its powers in attempting to regulate primary elections. [...]

The conviction of Senator Newberry was therefore reversed and, although the Senate was urged to unseat him, under the provision which emposers it to judge the qualifications of its own members, it declined by a close vote to do so. It did, however, pass a vote of censure which declared the expenditures in the primary contest to have been exessive and contrary to sound public policy. Subsequently Senator Newberry resigned [...]

During the proceedings in the Senate, Newberry was accused of perjury with respect to the Senate forms that he filled out about his expenditures. Ervin quotes "one passage, eminent for its bitterness even in that bitter debate", contributed by John Sharp Williams, then a Democratic senator from Mississippi. The whole thing is worth reading. Embedded in a bit more context,  the OED's quotation runs like this:

He goes on:

"The campaign for my nomination as United States Senator has been voluntarily conducted by friends in Michigan—"

I reckon by that that he did not even have to announce himself as a candidate—

"I have taken no part in it whatever—"

Now, Senators, I wish you would watch that. Of course, as the "niggers" say, he may have "overspoke himself," but still he is not a "nigger." He was a lieutenant commander in the Navy.  He was Assistant Secretary of the Navy at one time. He is now seeking to be a Senator of the United State. This is written in his own handwriting—

"I have taken no part in it whatever—"

Do you believe that? If there are six Senators on this floor who believe that, they are not fit to be Senators, because they are too gullible for anything.

The rhetoric here is not completely clear to me — why are six Senators more gullible than one? — but the racial slur seems to be that as a white man, Newberry should be held to a higher standard of truthfulness.

And then there's the background assumption that use of "overspoke" is a feature of African-American Vernacular English. I couldn't find any independent evidence for this. In fact, a quick historical usage survey suggests a rather different hypothesis.

The phrase "overspoke himself" occurs seven times in the Proquest Historical Newspapers index. None of these passages are have any discernable connection with AAVE. Three of them are due to  Westbrook Pegler, who has never before been identified as a columnist of color. Two of his uses refer to taboo language in sports, one on the part of the announcer of a Harvard-Dartmouth football game and the other due to the baseball player Heinie Manush.  Pegler's third use, from December 25, 1940, refers to what he saw as a mis-step by Harold Ickes in arguing for a plan to allow Jewish refugees into the Virgin Islands:

At this Christmas time I should like to say that in the matter of loving one's enemies, I am shooting a perfect score, and will greet the day with a serene conscience. [...]

I thought for a time there, just after election, that I might have to ask waivers on old Harold L. (for Lovable) Ickes, but the talk of unity proved to be just talk, after all, and he is now back in action in a most satisfactory way, trying to import whole batches of refugees, regardless of the possibility that most or all of them would be Communists, and drop them into a lovely vacation land in the Virgin Islands, whence they could filter into the United States.

As Mr. Ickes so often does, he overspoke himself, however, and it seem likely that the citizens will fix his wagon if he tries any funny business in this respect, "without passports or diplomatic formalities."

A story by Irving Vaughn in the Chicago Tribune of 6/22/1941 again refers to off-color language in a sports context:

Ben Chapman, who was installed in left field in Myril Hoag's place, also belted a homer, later leaving the scene at the request of Umpire Ernie Stewart. Ben overspoke himself on a called third strike in the fifth.

And another of the hits, oddly enough, brings the Jews in again (John W. Finney, "Senate Panel Declines to Query General Who Criticized Jews", NYT 11/26/1974):

The Senate Armed Services Committee decided today not to summon Gen. George S. Brown, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for an explanation of his critical comments about Jews in the United States. [...]

Senator Stennis told reporters that General Brown had "made a mistake," "overspoke himself" and "got out of bounds."

Senator John C. Stennis, Democrat of Mississippi, seems even less likely than Mr. Pegler to have had any recent African ancestors.

The seventh hit is another quotation from a southern senator, this time Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina  (Robin Toner, "Senate, Ending Impasse, Approves Envoy to China", 11/6/1985):

Mr. Helms had blocked Mr. Spain's nomination until the nomiee explained questions he had raised in an article critical of the ambassadorial appointment process.

Mr. Helms told the Senate tonight, "Mr. Spain recognizes now that he overspoke himself when he wrote the article."

So to sum it all up, it seems to me that John Sharp Williams himself "overspoke himself", back in 1919.  What he should have said was

Now, Senators, I wish you would watch that. Of course, as the white southern senators, sportswriters, and right-wing pundits say, he may have "overspoke himself," but still he is not a white southern senator, a sportswriter, or a right-wing pundit. He was a lieutenant commander in the Navy.  He was Assistant Secretary of the Navy at one time. He is now seeking to be a Senator of the United State. This is written in his own handwriting—

And this usage note would also fit Tucker Carlson better than Williams' original version does.

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26 Comments »

  1. Stan said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 7:20 am

    I've encountered the word before, but I couldn't say when or where. Underspeak (v) appears to be a much rarer term – unless I've underspoken.

    (A quick search reveals that "Most humans who set about to learn Underspeak are scholars who have an interest in The Deeps of Yarel".)

  2. Kylopod said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 7:31 am

    When public figures are forced to apologize for controversial remarks, one of the most frequent things they say is, "I misspoke." "I overspoke" is a lot less common, at least in modern times. On Google News between 1980 and 2008, I got 425 hits for the former, but only 6 for the latter.

    Some examples of "I misspoke": Hillary Clinton apologizing for having falsely claimed to have been under sniper fire in Bosnia; Don Regan apologizing for suggesting that women don't understand arms control; Sharon Stone apologizing for calling a Chinese earthquake "karma" for the crimes of the Chinese government.

    I only found two examples of "I overspoke" in this date range: Colin Powell apologizing for getting snippy over criticisms by William Safire in 1995; and some article I can't access for free, about an athlete.

    I guess the difference between these two words is that "misspoke" is meant to suggest you didn't mean what came out of your mouth, whereas "overspoke" suggests having overreacted and gotten too emotional. It's striking, though, that both are used as hedges by public figures caught saying something stupid (or at least controversial).

  3. Mark P said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 8:23 am

    Williams' usage of "overspoke" seems to be consistent with the cited meanings, but he also seems to imply something like "to speak above one's station." That casual slur would certainly be consistent with a Mississippi senator's opinion of African Americans, possibly more so in the early 1900s than today. There also seems to be an underlying assumption that, at least for African Americans, "overspeak" is a euphemism for "intentionally lie." But, as he says, Newberry was not speaking "above his station." Therefore he must have intentionally lied.

  4. GeorgeW said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 8:27 am

    A rather trivial observation about this post is the use of the word 'hale': "Senator Newberry was haled before a Federal court . . ."

    I think this is my first encounter with this usage which, according to M-W Unabridged, is attested to the 13th century.

    @Kylopod: Yes, 'misspoke' is more common now, but does not (for me) suggest exaggeration or excess like 'overspoke.'

  5. Mr Punch said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 9:14 am

    There's less diversity than meets the eye among the users of "overspoke." First off, all those southern senators, from the same region and working together (or at least overlapping). Tucker Carlson, by the way, is a grandnephew of Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.). Then there are the journalists – Vaughn a sportswriter with the Chicago Tribune, Pegler a sometime sportswriter and a columnist for the same paper. Finally, the journalists' subjects – Cramer born in Tennessee and raised in Alabama, Manush born in Alabama and raised in Tennessee, Ickes a former staff member at the Chicago Tribune.

    One possibility, it seems to me, is that "overspoke" is a word used by southerners, white and black, that was picked up in certain northern circles in which people spent a lot of time interviewing southerners.

  6. GeorgeW said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 9:38 am

    @Mr Punch: I was born in the South in 1940. Although some of these quotes predate me, I don't recall the word 'overspoke' being associated with African-Americans (Negro or 'Nigra' in those days).

  7. Mark P said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 10:02 am

    @GeorgeW, I was born in Georgia in 1950, so I sometimes try to use my own experience when parsing Southern references. I didn't do that here because I don't recall hearing "overspoke" used by anyone.

  8. GeorgeW said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 10:16 am

    @Mark P: I don't specifically recall 'overspoke' as well. However, I think I would recall it there had been a clear racial connotation or association.

  9. Colin Reid said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 11:05 am

    It sounds to me like the senator thinks this usage of 'overspoke himself' is improper, and so associates it with a group he believes to be a primary source of 'incorrect' English.

    The use of scare quotes is interesting as well – is the transcriber indicating something about the speaker's intonation when saying "nigger", or distancing himself from the word?

    [(myl) There are several stages of transcription and editing between the senator's speech on the floor in 1919 and its publication in Ervin's 1935 book. I doubt that the punctuation can be attributed to the original speaker.]

  10. Robert Coren said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 11:34 am

    The variant "overspoke himself" reminded me of a usage that appears to have been current early in the 20th century (and perhaps earlier and/or later, for all I know), namely "oversleep him/herself", where these days we would just say "oversleep". I wonder where this reflexive construction comes from, and whether there are other such instances.

    (Ring Lardner appears to have believed that "I overslept myself" was not something a properly educated person would say; there's a hilarious deconstruction of the phrase in one of his stories — I think it's called "Contract", but I don't have a copy ready to hand.)

    [(myl) Here? Or here? I guess here.]

  11. Mark F. said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

    It's easier to walk back claims of opinion than claims of fact, but anyway I think Carlson did a decent job.

  12. Ray Dillinger said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 1:47 pm

    I have encountered "overspeak" and "overspoken" before, but I don't recall where. They were probably in books I read in my adolescence. "Overspoke" seems to me improper, except in first person. In second or third person I would expect to hear a phrase using a perfective "have" form and the word "overspoken" instead.

    The reference to African-American Vernacular English here is probably about phrasing rather than vocabulary. The reflexive construction "may have overspoke himself" seems dialectical; "overspoke" is used in third person rather than first and used as though it takes a direct object not found in the standard dialect. I think that "may have overspoken" would have seemed more proper to the senators.

    Interestingly though, I have consistently heard "backpedal" but never "walk back" for this particular act of self-negation.

    Bear

    [(myl) The phrase "walk back" has become pretty common -- some recent examples from the news media are:

    But on Sunday, he walked back – just a bit – from his statement (on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show) that President Obama was “the most corrupt president in modern times.”
    House Republicans Already Walking Back Pledge to Cut $100 Billion From Budget
    American Medical Association tries to walk back its public-plan opposition.
    Let's Walk Back That Daffy Lame Duck Talk
    The turnpike commission faces a more difficult walk-back from the fare-less tickets.
    One day later, Morris appeared on Fox & Friends to walk back the false story, claiming to separate "the facts" from his "conjecture based on the facts."
    Speculation swept through the more salacious political blogs, but Rogers tried to walk back expectations on Dec 21, after speaking with his lawyer.
    Two years ago I said I didn't think any combination of other new programs would be enough to make up for failure on one of the big three, and that's a tough statement to walk back
    The White House then tried to walk back what Axelrod had said.
    Now Cantor is attempting to walk back his comments by saying he was not in anyway referring to relations between the United States and Israel.
    "So if this provides us an opportunity to walk back some of that anger, it could only be good for America."

    ]

  13. Mark P said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 2:02 pm

    @Ray Dellinger: I not familiar with "walk back." When I read it I immediately thought of a phrase used in my business. When writing proposals for government work, people are told to "cross walk" the list of requirements and the items in the proposal that are aimed at those requirements.

  14. Joe said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

    A Google Books search finds references to a joke amongst lawyers of that time (published, for example, in "Case and Comment" in 1911, in the humor section) about "a certain negro killed another down in Mississippi". The joke talks about how the suspect had revised his original story for his defense. When asked about the discrepancy, the he delivers the joke's punchline: "Yes sir, boss, I told you dat, but when I did I overspoke myself".

    Perhaps this joke was what Williams was referring to when making this reference to "niggers".

  15. richard howland-bolton said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 3:03 pm

    Not that it's got anything to do with anything, but all this talk of overspeaking keeps dragging my mind to the Kipper Family's Captain Upspoke (as in many-a-folk-song's "Then Upspoke the captain…")

  16. Robert Coren said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

    @myl: Yeah, those last two (the same passage).

  17. Jake said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 5:47 pm

    This post, and the questionable cultural indications, got me to look up "overstand", which I'd only heard in rap lyrics before and had always assumed was, at best, some kind of flash-in-the-pan slang. Imagine my surprise when the OED dated it (as a synonym for understand) as far back as 1699.

  18. Mark F. said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 7:43 pm

    Mark P. – Google "walk back claim" for lots of examples. Note that "walk back" is transitive, unlike "backtrack".

  19. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 7:46 pm

    I've both heard and used "overspeak". Actually when I first read the intro I was thinking what could possibly be so curious about the use of it in that sentence, figuring there something deeper. But, then again, I'm an SAE speaker :-)

  20. Mark P said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 9:34 pm

    Mark F – I wonder if "walk back" is journalese. I have seen it recently but don't remember seeing or hearing it very long ago (recency illusion?). I Googled "cross walk" and got lots of religious references. I first encountered that term while working on a proposal for an Army contract in the late 80s-early 90s. At the time I assumed it was just one of those terms that engineers come up with instead of using more common words like "compare".

  21. Jens Fiederer said,

    January 6, 2011 @ 12:10 am

    To be fair, there was probably quite a bit of AAVE that was spoken rather than immortalized in text, so the reference probably counts as (weak) evidence.

  22. Peter G. Howland said,

    January 6, 2011 @ 6:17 am

    re: overspoke / overstand

    @ Jake – Your reference to hearing “overstand” in rap lyrics amused me because I thought the term was a sarcastic way of suggesting that someone is displaying understanding beyond its normal limits; as in making too much out of something.

    So I swung around to take a look in The Dictionary (Yes, I still have more than one of those 2,500-page raggety-ass *paper* monsters around…it’s right there on the big table behind me…next to the other antiques…you know, the pencils and the Pink Pearl eraser and the stapler!) and sure enough, “OVERSTAND” was listed.

    And if you follow the trail back to the prior page under “overreach” (def. 13), you see that it’s primarily a nautical reference: “to sail on a tack longer than is desirable or intended” and beyond that, “exceeding the point or purpose”. So, what I get out of it is this:

    “You think you ’stand me, but you’ve gone too far (bitch!).”

    This confirmed my initial reaction to the other term “overspoke” as indicating that someone has said something that was beyond considered thoughtful acceptance. Although the word is not part of my everyday locution, (which is most often confined to expletives directed toward poor defenseless inanimate objects…there’s nobody here but me and my old crap), I instantly understood it to mean that what had been said had simply “gone too far”. As I may have. Just now.

    [BTW, I’ve heard “walk back” in broadcast news (Olberman, Maddow, Matthews, et al.) for more than a couple of years now. Journalese? Sure. But currently common? I think so. Maybe, going forward, it’ll soon go the way of “going forward”. One can only hope.]

  23. Tim Leonard said,

    January 7, 2011 @ 9:41 am

    I asked the editors at Merriam-Webster, and Neil Serven replied:

    This sense of "walk back" appears to be a relatively recent coinage. Searching "walk(-s/ied/-ing) back (my/his/her/their) remarks" in online news archives (LEXIS-NEXIS and Google News) turns up no evidence of usage before 2009; "walk(-s/ied/-ing) back (my/his/her/their) statement" shows nothing before 2010.

    It is possible that it was used for a while in spoken English among some members of the population before it ever saw print. While it is too early at this point to tell if it will ever become a dictionary entry, my inclination would be to treat "walk back" on the whole as a transitive verb phrase, defined something along the lines of "retract." But that could change if the phrase is picked up by more speakers and writers, who would then tweak it to fit their needs.

  24. maidhc said,

    January 8, 2011 @ 12:44 am

    I've read that the phrase "walking back the cat" was in use at the CIA back in the 1960s or 1970s, meaning something like an intensive review of a failed operation. The only thing I can think of for its origin is something related to running a film backwards, but maybe there's something else.

    In Australia a "standover man" is a criminal of large size who uses threats of violence to extort money or other things from people.

    I wonder if "walk back" comes from the military-industrial complex? You can imagine people working at a large military contractor saying something like "You just walk that proposal back to Engineering and tell them to add armoring around the fuel tank". In the beginning it would literally mean to take a document in your hand and walk with it back to its department of origin for modification.

  25. Jake Nelson said,

    January 11, 2011 @ 8:30 am

    Old thread, but I had to note on walk back: I've heard it for years, and understood it as an extension of the more common usage, as in how one moves a bookshelf without assistance: you walk one side toward you, then the other. Thus "walking back" an assertion is attempting to bring an unwieldy thing back, and it looks a little clumsy when you do it. One of those things where someone says "I've never heard that before" (or whatever), and I don't even recognize it as an idiom or phrase worth commenting on, they're just normal words strung together in a logical fashion…

  26. Jumping to conclusions on “overspeak” « Motivated Grammar said,

    January 18, 2011 @ 12:55 pm

    [...] actually checked to see if his impression was correct. It wasn't, and he ended up writing an informative post about the history of overspeak and its relationship to AAVE and Southern American [...]

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