Here we go again

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Jacob Weisberg, who turned the Bushisms industry into a nice source of income for six years or so, must be even more excited than Rupert Murdoch about the possibility that Sarah Palin will make a serious run for president in 2012.  Weisberg's Palinisms feature at Slate has already notched 71 little items, and the first Palinisms book has already been published, with a full line of calendars and other paraphernalia no doubt waiting in the wings.

And as in the case of Weisberg's Bushisms, what starts as communal amusement at perceived gaucheries ("He said Kosovians!") quickly leads to sniggering at favored expressions, at regionalisms, at routine slips of the tongue, and sometimes at nothing that those not in the giggling in-crowd can perceive at all.

Let's take a look at the two most recent Palinisms at Slate — posted 2/19/2011 and 2/20/2011, both taken from an interview with Kevin S. Law at the Long Island Association's Annual Meeting and Luncheon.

In the item posted on 2/20/2011, Slate has:

"Nobody is more qualified really to multitasking and doing all the things you need to do as a president than a woman and as a mom."

The quote comes from an exchange that begins at around 54:09 of the video. Here's the question:

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Law: Could um if- if not you,  if you choose not to,  um do you see- can- you know, can- what- who do you envison being at the top of the G.O.P.  uh ticket against President Obama in 2012?

A charitable transcriber, aiming to communicate the content of the exchange to a reader, would spare us Mr. Law's few seconds of tongue-fumbling, and render his question as something like

If not you, if you choose not to, who do you envison being at the top of the G.O.P. ticket against President Obama in 2012?

And here's the (start of) Ms. Palin's answer:

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Palin: Yeah. You know, I don't have a name to give you right now, but uh what I would look for in terms of character and in terms of experience would be someone who's been on the front lines, understanding what it to h- how to administer and- and how to lead a team and how to run a business,  so  that person you know-
oh, gosh, and I- I think  you know nobody is more qualified really to multitasking and doing all the things that you need to do as president than  a woman  than- as a mom. So I would- let me just say …

Again, a charitable rendering of this passage would be something like:

I don't have a name to give you right now, but what I would look for in terms of character and in terms of experience would be someone who's been on the front lines, understanding how to administer and how to lead a team and how to run a business,  so that person you know …

Oh, gosh,   you know, nobody is more qualified really to multitasking and doing all the things that you need to do as president than a woman,  as a mom.

Let's compare Jacob Weisberg's version, with omitted words in [square brackets] and inserted words in {curly braces}:

Nobody is more qualified really to multitasking and doing all the things [that] you need to do as {a} president than a woman {and} as a mom.

The omitted "that" and inserted "a" don't matter much. But transcribing the false start "than-" as "and", and then leaving it in rather than editing it out, turns a reasonable sentence-ending into near nonsense.

I suspect that Ms. Palin's intended version of this joke might have been something like "Nobody is more qualified to do all the things that you need to do as president than a woman, who does all those things as a mom". But even as it stands, "Nobody is more qualified … than a woman, as a mom" is hardly the sort of thing to giggle at.

What's left as a problematic aspect of this sentence is the use of "to" rather than "for" in "Nobody is more qualified to multitasking …", instead of "Nobody is more qualified for multitasking …".

This is clearly a blend between "qualified to VERB" and "qualified for NOUN".  There's some evidence out there that some people may have adopted "to NOMINALIZATION" as a possible complement of "qualified":

(link) Each staff member is qualified to doing what they are called to do
(link) Our trained electronic technicians are qualified to fixing tiny issues down to component level.
(link) I then moved on to accept a job as a lithographic proofer and aged 20 I was qualified to operating proofing presses

However, I suspect that Ms. Palin's use of this blend was simply a slip of the tongue.

The Palinism posted on 1/19/2011 was

"It's no wonder Michelle Obama is telling everybody you better breast-feed your baby—yeah, you better—because the price of milk is so high right now!"

I don't see any linguistic issue in this quote at all — not even a slip of the tongue — and surely Mr. Weisberg is too mature for Beavis-and-Butthead-level "She said breast!" humor. So why  is this a "Palinism"? Could he think that she meant it seriously?

But it was obviously a joke, if a slightly mean-spirited one, as the context (around 14:05 of the video) makes clear. Ms. Palin is talking about the damage allegedly done to the U.S. economy by President Obama's policies, and she's reeling off a list of price increases, starting with oil and gold and going on to

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Palin: … commodity increases, which of course you know result in then higher cost of living for the rest of us, as we're buying our groceries at the grocery store; ask any mom who's out there buying cases of diapers –
still, all these years later, cases of diapers —
and a can of formula, milk for the baby –
it's no wonder Michelle Obama's telling everybody you better breast feed your babies, because I-
I'm looking and I'm going "Yeah, you better, 'cause the price of milk is so high right now!"
Regardless of the political-
You know, do it for economic reasons!
But anyway um … and may that not be the take-away please of this- this thing. God.

(Again, note that the Palinisms transcription is not especially careful.)

I guess it's conceivable that Jacob Weisberg (or some Slate intern tasked with filling the hopper) tagged this as a Palinism because she said "you better" instead of "you'd better". But that would be an even thinner pretext for a giggle than the "She said breast!" or "she doesn't understand the cost of living" theories.

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14 Comments »

  1. Jenny said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 10:40 am

    Presumably the 'breast milk' one is a Palinism because you don't feed your baby cow's milk… you'd think she'd know that.

    [(myl) That apparently depends on who "you" are and how old your baby is...]

  2. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Here we go again [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 11:00 am

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  3. John Cowan said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 11:05 am

    My Ineffably Cute Grandson is off formula now, but surely the price of formula (unless it's soy-based or something) is tied to the price of milk.

    [(myl) Yes.]

  4. D.O. said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 11:17 am

    I gave up on Weisberg a long time ago. Now my only chance to be familiar with his excursions is if you post about them. As a side note, recently deceased Russian Premier of 1990s Viktor Chernomyrdin was famous for his aphorisms, thought to be linguistic or logical errors at the time, but now considered by many as a witty and innovative use of Russian language. I guess in creating them, embellishment on journalists' part also played a role. Wikipedia article contains are number of utterances, but as usual, linguistic humor loses badly in translation.

  5. Bloix said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 11:22 am

    (1) Let's be completely charitable and pretend that she said, "No one is more qualified to do all things the president has to do than a mom, because moms know how to multitask." Do we have to take this seriously? Can't we agree that the statement is idiotic? Do we really have to discuss whether being able change a diaper while the soup is on the stove and you're on the phone qualifies you to be president?

    [(myl) As the context makes clear, this remark was a joke, meant to tease her audience by suggesting herself as a candidate (since she's the only woman and mother in contention this time around) without actually committing to anything. She goes on to elaborate the joke by saying "Let me just say, adding that all up, what I would look for was somebody who- OK, who'll start off as being you know a woman, a mom; somebody who's administered locally, state, um inter-state with energy issues so maybe a major, a governor, an oil commissioner; maybe somebody who's already run for something, a vice pre- ((oh god))", getting laughs all the way through.]

    (2)
    (a) The price of milk fell dramatically in 2008-2009 and is coming back up to where it was in 2007 – uncorrected for inflation. http://future.aae.wisc.edu/data/annual_values/by_area/301?tab=prices

    b) Infants don't drink milk. They drink formula, a highly manufactured product whose retail price is not primarily determined by the cost of the raw materials that go into it.

    Look, the point is not merely that she's an idiot. And it's not merely that she's an ignorant idiot. The point is that she revels in being an ignorant idiot. She doesn't engage in reasoned debate. Reasoned debate is for dweebs. She operates at the level of a popular girl in high school. Her goal is always the put-down. She knows that being a mom isn't a qualification for president – her point is that only dweebs care about being smart and having qualifications, what you really need is popularity, and that's what she's got. She knows that infants don't drink milk. What she's really doing is delivering a "zinger" about inflation. Who cares if it's got nothing to do with the issue and also happens to be false?

    Over and over again, all she does is spout these cute, nasty, little sucker-punches that are designed to derail intelligent debate. And lots of people love this stuff. They don't like to think about issues; they want to cheer on their side. That's what Palin gives them – the stupider she is, the more they like it. But people who aren't already in her fan club find the stupidity unbearable. Grammatical or not, she's an idiot.

    [(myl) The cited interview is full of (in my opinion) preposterous economic and political arguments, of which these are among the least wrong. But Weisberg's shtick is not criticizing (or even ridiculing) bad policy ideas, it's elite sneering at the self-expression of provincial boobs. In my opinion this is a bad idea, politically as well as ethically.]

  6. KevinM said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 12:05 pm

    I see your point. But you may have a professional bias toward viewing Weisberg's column as a (defective) compendium of grammatical or syntactical errors. I view it more as "public figures saying things highly typical of themselves." A Rumsfeld quote beginning with "My goodness," or a Reagan quote beginning with a drawn-out "Weeeeellll," for example, might qualify as a Rumsfeldism or a Reaganism without being in any way ungrammatical. But, as I say, I do see your point, from the Language Log perspective.

  7. Bloix said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 12:09 pm

    John Cowan – No. The price of formula is only slightly influenced by the price of milk. It certainly is not "tied" to that price.

    A quart of Similac sells at retail for about $5.50. Fluid milk wholesale sells for about $17 per hundredweight. There are 11.63 gallons in a hundredweight, so the Similac people can buy milk at about 37 cents per quart. So the raw material cost of milk to Similac is no more than 7% of the retail price of the finished product. If the price of milk were to rise by 25 percent, you might see the price of Similac rise by two percent.

    This is typical of highly manufactured food products: the costs of the raw material inputs are a small fraction of the total price to the consumer. Only extreme changes in their costs have a noticeable effect on the retail price.

    You'd think that a politician from a rural state like Alaska would know this. And maybe she does. But she doesn't care. Zingers matter. Facts, not so much.

  8. Ruth said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

    Isn't the force of including the breastfeeding comment to show Palin pretending to be someone who doesn't understand that breastfeeding is better for babies? It's the content, not the mode of expression, that's being mocked here–I think.

    (Did you really use the words "provincial boobs" in response to a comment about rhetoric around breastfeeding? That's pretty funny.)

  9. The Ridger said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 12:40 pm

    Over and over again, all she does is spout these cute, nasty, little sucker-punches that are designed to derail intelligent debate. And lots of people love this stuff. They don't like to think about issues; they want to cheer on their side. That's what Palin gives them

    And lists like this are hardly better – if at all. They're just poking fun at the way she says something, rather than pointing out what she says "about issues". They're just cheering on a side. That's what Weisberg has to offer.

  10. Catanea said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 5:39 pm

    Doctor Spock's book (not Mr Spock's book) still tells you how to make your own formula, not buying into the vast marketing, &c. &c. Those recipes are VERY MUCH tied to the price of milk. Formula doesn't have to come from a store.

  11. Ben Karlin said,

    February 23, 2011 @ 1:03 am

    Wow, I had assumed I got the nursing quote. The goofy part seems to be "telling EVERYBODY you better breast-feed your baby." As the father of two, I never nursed either. Telling "everybody' to nurse is a waste as fully half of all parents are unable. My nipples are purely ornamental.

    I thought that was pretty odd to single out as an -ism. It's no stranger grammatically than telling 'everybody' what 'you' should do with 'your' baby.

  12. Private Zydeco said,

    February 23, 2011 @ 4:59 am

    Allow me to suggest, if we are all to get our own two cents in hashing over idealised, quasi-paraphrases of the axiom-in-question, the following entry, but with particular attention paid to the final words before the stop:

    "Truly, nobody is more qualified for the multitasking and other things required of a president than a woman, a mom."

    Inasfar as that a miscellany of potential alternate meanings can be teased every wich way from the original, and that many of these should be filed under "conjecture", do I hear any Dissent or Assent as to whether I may have pinned down with this what Senator Palin was striving through grit and gale to say?

  13. AB said,

    May 1, 2011 @ 2:18 pm

    Ben you can do it :)

  14. John Cowan said,

    May 1, 2011 @ 4:08 pm

    Bloix, you're right, but you miss my point. When milk goes up x, formula goes up 2x, and the formula producers blame the price increase on the greedy dairy farmers.

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