Are we losing it? [*] It's been almost three weeks since the latest and greatest episode in the News Corporation phone-hacking scandal began dominating the world's news, and no one at Language Log has yet found a linguistic angle. I mean, Geoff Pullum connected a World Series victory with Strunk & White; I found a way to put Paris Hilton together with birdsong syntax; surely we can relate Rupert Murdoch to hypotaxis, or Rebekah Brooks to FOXP2?
Well, not so far. But this morning, I've got at least the peripheral glimmer of a connection.
Don van Natta Jr., "Suspicions About Former Editor in Battle Over Story Complicate Hacking Scandal, NYT 7/22/2011 (Obligatory screenshot…):
On the BBC Thursday night, Mr. [Robert] Peston reported that the standards committee run by Mr. Lewis had fired an editor at The Sun for “previous work” he had done at The News of the World.
Shortly after, Tom Watson, a Labour member of Parliament, accused Mr. Peston on Twitter of “distracting” readers from questions that were raised earlier in the day about the veracity of James Murdoch’s testimony at a Parliamentary committee hearing.
Mr. Watson, who had questioned the Murdochs at the session on Tuesday, told Mr. Peston that “you are being spoon-fed stories” and accused him of being “a patsy” for News International.
Mr. Peston dismissed Mr. Watson’s accusations, saying on Twitter that they did not dignify a reply.
The pattern that I'm used to involves an accused party refusing to dignify accusations by replying. Thus the Merriam-Webster entry for dignify includes the example "He said he wouldn't dignify his opponents' accusations by responding to them". But in Mr. van Natta's story, the accusations turn up in the subject position — rather than Mr. Peston refusing to dignify the accusations with a reply, the accusations themselves "did not dignify a reply".
Now, there are normal diathesis alternations in English where the same logical argument of a verb can show up sometimes in object and sometimes in subject position, e.g.
Kim did not cut the salami with a knife ~ The salami did not cut easily
But I can't think of any other cases of the type
X (not) Verb Y with Z ~ Y (not) Verb Z
In the salami-cutting case, that would be "The salami did not cut a knife", which is backwards relative to the actual "A knife did not cut the salami".
My intuitions, FWIW, tell me that accusation-dignifying allows a subset of the frames seen for salami-cutting:
|A||X cut the salami with her knife||X dignified the accusation with her reply|
|B||Her knife cut the salami||Her reply dignified the accusation|
|C||The salami cut easily||??The accusation dignified easily|
|D||Her knife cut easily||??Her reply dignified easily|
|E||*The salami cut her knife||*The accusation dignified her reply|
(A) and (B) are fine for both; (C) and (D) are fine for the salami-cutting, but questionable for the accusation-dignifying; and (E) ought to be completely out of the question for both (assuming the same events are under discussion). But (E) is exactly what we see in the last sentence of the NYT article.
So my first thought was that the NYT phrase was the result of an editing error — some slip of the brain or fingers. Thus someone might have started with "… that he would not dignify them with a reply", then decided to change this to "they did not deserve a reply", and mistakenly retyped "dignify" instead of "deserve" in the revised version.
But a quick web search suggests that some people may see "ACCUSATION dignify REPLY" as a valid frame for dignify:
Normally a comment like this doesn't dignify a reply.
Finally, I have to respond to Mr. Heirdoug, although his venom does not dignify a reply.
"your accusations ~ don't dignify a reply" ~ he said on twitter
You are so full of it that your message does not dignify a reply other than to say you are full of crap.
And some examples show up in published books:
On the issue of a deal to drop charges against Junger, he is quoted as saying that the allegation by Junger that a deal had been struck 'does not dignify a reply.'
This espoused Trinitarian answer is so absurd it doesn't even dignify a reply.
This is almost too stupid to dignify a reply.
Why not delegate dysphagia evaluation and treatment to someone who is trained and understands oral musculature, pharyngeal, laryngeal movements, and respiration. Lastly, I will not even dignify a reply to Ms. Lane's comment, …
Your insinuation did not dignify a response.
… the SPDC replied, "The allegation that children are used as human minesweepers and shields is too absurd and ridiculous to dignify a response."
“The allegations do not dignify a response,” Ullman told CNN.
These allegations are so ludicrous that they hardly dignify a response….
There are even some examples previously published in the New York Times, though in the past they've always been in direct quotations:
Ms. Quinn, when asked by reporters about Mr. Dunleavy's comments, said they were "so outrageous I don't even think they dignify a response."
Steven Greenberg, a spokesman for Mr. McCall, said the governor's comments "do not dignify a response."
He said he and his wife ignored the e-mail messages because “we thought they were so insulting they didn't dignify a response”
When asked whether Mr. Moore would respond directly to Mr. Huckabee, one of the filmmaker’s media representatives said the candidate’s remarks “didn’t really dignify a response.”
Any inquiries to our office appear to be a backdoor reference to potential tampering charges which simply do not dignify a response.
So maybe, I thought, Robert Peston actually tweeted that Tom Watson's accusation did not "dignify a reply", and Don van Natta just quoted him (albeit indirectly) in the NYT story?
But not so. Here's the exchange of tweets between Peston and Watson, from Friday 7/21/2011:
|Why Sun story now @Peston? More spin to deflect Myler/Crone statement? Where's your dignity?|
|@tom_watson Tom, this is an outrageous and untrue allegation|
|I'm sorry @Peston but you are being spoonfed stories. The Myler statement creates a crisis at NI. You have form. Stop being a patsy.|
|@tom_watson That is not worthy of a response|
So now we're left with two possibilities. Maybe it was a brain-o after all, of a kind that I've committed many times myself. Or maybe Mr. van Natta or one of his editors buys into the idea that "ACCUSATION does not dignify RESPONSE" is a way to say "ACCUSATION does not deserve RESPONSE".
If it's the latter, is this a change in progress? Or just a low-frequency but stable variant in the lexicographical meme pool?
[*] Well, um, at least it seems that I myself am losing it, since Geoff Pullum found an excellent Murdoch-scandal connection several days ago: "You don't need no stinkin' passive", 7/18/2011.