On January 4, Cornel West was asked on MSNBC to evaluate the state of the country and President Obama's performance. On January 5 and 6, Rush Limbaugh carried on at some length about a speech error in Prof. West's answer. On January 7, Ann Althouse joined the conversation.
My modest contribution today is to describe the cited error in a bit more detail, and to offer a small bit of evidence about its likely causes.
First, the source of the error. This took a little while to find, since Mr. Limbaugh didn't name the show or even the channel:
And just the audio for the crucial part:
Now, Mr. Limbaugh's comments. The January 5 commentary seems to be behind a paywall, with only the January 6 comments — "Professors Limbaugh and West Put 'Surcame' in Urban Dictionary" — available to those who are not members of his 24/7 Club:
RUSH: We must go back to yesterday's program to illustrate, ladies and gentlemen, the power, the sheer power of this program. Yesterday we played an audio sound bite by well known activist disguised as a professor, Cornel West at Princeton University. He's upset with his dear brother Barack Obama.
WEST: Two years later, we have missed the opportunity, unfortunately. We didn't get the kind of leadership that we should. The president didn't have enough backbone. He became too milquetoast. He would not fight big business, would not fight the big banks. He actually surcame too easily to big business and big banks — and, of course, the obstructionism on the right was helping push him to the center; and now, of course —
RUSH: All right, that's enough. The word that he used in there, if you were listening to us in the waning moments of yesterday's program was "surcame." We'd never heard of the word surcame, but we didn't want to be hasty here in our accusations that a distinguished professor at a distinguished institution of higher learning had made up a word. So I instructed staff here to uncover every possibly dictionary available on the web, find for me the word "surcame." We knew what he meant: succumbed. I first instructed the staff to go to the Urban Dictionary, and the staff did. They didn't find the word "surcame," but the word surcome was found. It's basically the same thing as succumb but instead it's a slang word used frequently in internet chat rooms. It is usually used for someone who must give in to the circumstances, usually used to describe something that gave way to death or illness, as in she surcomed to cancer. While we were discussing this, there was no listing for the word "surcame" in any dictionary you could find on the internet, including the Urban Dictionary.
However, there now is an entry for the word surcame in the Urban Dictionary. It was entered yesterday. It was not a listing in that dictionary while we were discussing it. So as a result of this program and its usage by distinguished professor of political science, Cornel West, the word "surcame" has now been listed in the Urban Dictionary.
And finally, Ann Althouse:
IN THE COMMENTS: Someone calls this solecism "ebonics," and I say:
No, this is nothing like ebonics. It's the opposite of ebonics, if anything. Cornel West may be black, but his speech is not at all ebonics. It's pretentious straining at erudition, which is why it's so damned funny when he screws up.
I would not put up a post making fun of someone who lapses into an ebonics-type usage. I don't see the value in mocking that. I do see big value in puncturing a puffed-up academic — even though political correctness nags at me to refrain from making fun of the way a black person speaks.
I do have some sympathy for West here, though, because I think PC folk have failed — over a long period of time — to give him the feedback that would have kept him from developing this absurdly inflated style of speech, with its danger of missteps like this, and the self-serious demeanor that makes his mistakes especially funny.
My own opinion is that there's reason to think that the original usage was simply a slip of the tongue.
It's obvious that Prof. West meant "succumbed", and from the audio evidence, it's clear that he said something that can plausibly be transcribed as "surcame". What both Limbaugh and Althouse assume is that this is the result of an eggcorn, in which the basic verb succumb is re-analyzed as a combination of the prefix sur- and the stem come, and that the preterite of this imagined verb then inherits the irregular form come, to yield surcame.
This is a plausible thing to happen, in the abstract. But a quick Google search shows us that Prof. West has used the verb succumb and its preterite succumbed many dozens of times in his books; and no doubt many more times in his speeches and interviews. One example, from Keeping Faith:
So let's consider the "slip of the tongue" hypothesis — is there any evidence for it? Here's the audio again:
And a transcript:
He became too milquetoast.
He would not fight big business, would not fight the big banks.
He actually surcame too ear- too easily to big business and big banks, and of course …
First, the bound morpheme -came has been primed by the use of became two sentences back.
And second, he starts to say "early" instead of "easily" two words after "surcame", suggesting that the /ɚ/ coda is also over-active. A reasonable guess is that he was teetering between "surrendered to" and "succumbed to", with -came somewhat activated because of "became" — and the result was a blend of all three. This kind of speech error is fairly common. It doesn't mean that the speaker believes that the emergent blend is the appropriate word to use in the circumstances, or even a real word at all.
Putting it all together: it's implausible that Prof. West doesn't know how to form the preterite of succumb; and it's plausible that his production of "surcame" was a simple speech error.
Thus, in my opinion, both Rush Limbaugh and Ann Althouse are piling on for political reasons or because they don't like Cornel West, just as Jacob Weisberg piled on to the Bushisms business. Of course, Weisberg did it for years, while they've only done it once or twice.
[Update– Ann Althouse disagrees, partly with my analysis but mostly with my too-glib assignment of motive to her. I'll certainly accept her evaluation of her own motivations, but I do feel that using this slip to tag West as a poseur is unfair — and not because I have any special affection for him or for his perspectives.]