Edward Liddy chose, bizarrely, to start the third paragraph of his Op-Ed piece in today's WaPo ("Our Mission at AIG: Repairs, and Repayment") with a classical allusion:

Mistakes were made at AIG, and on a scale that few could have imagined possible. The most egregious of those began in 1987, when the company strayed from its core insurance competencies to launch a credit-default-swaps portfolio, which eventually became subject to massive collateral calls that created a liquidity crisis for AIG. Its missteps have exacted a high price, not only for the company and its employees but for the American taxpayer, the federal government's finances and the global economy. These missteps brought AIG to the brink of collapse and to the government for help.

The phrase "mistakes were made" is simple enough to be common — especially if minor variants like "mistakes have been made" are counted — and evasive enough to be be salt in the wounds of angry people eager for contrition and even revenge. The fact that it has its own Wikipedia page is evidence of its special status, as is the fact that (back in 1991) William Safire endorsed William Schneider's joke-grammar coinage past exonerative to describe it.  When Alberto Gonzales used the phrase two years ago, the NYT teased him with a historical review under the headline "Familiar Fallback for Officials: 'Mistakes were Made'". The most widely-remarked example, I think, was Ronald Reagan's reference to the Iran-Contra scandal in his 1987 State of the Union address:

… we did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so. We will get to the bottom of this, and I will take whatever action is called for.

I believe that this is was the instance that led to the Matt Groening Life in Hell strip, shown above (click for a larger version). [I haven't been able to verify the connection, beyond finding a 1990 interview with Groening that mentions the cartoon and thus indicates that it's old enough.]

16. ### James said,

March 19, 2009 @ 5:16 am

Nathan,
Aha; the Wikipedia entry (myl's link) seems to be saying that zeugma is simply coordination, of any kind.

Simon,
Check that Wikipedia entry for examples called 'zeugma' where the relation is the same and there is no offense of grammar, e.g. “Lust conquered shame, audacity fear, madness reason.”
I have to say that I don't understand your example of syllepsis ("Kill the boys and the luggage!"), which seems to me a perfectly grammatical imperative that is impossible to obey.

17. ### Harry Campbell said,

March 19, 2009 @ 7:27 am

For years I've had the nagging feeling that there was supposed to be some subtle difference between syllepsis and zeugma, but never been able to pin it down. OED seems to say that syllepsis is a specific type of zeugma and even perhaps some kind of solecism:

A figure by which a single word is made to refer to two or more words in the sentence; esp. when properly applying in sense to only one of them, or applying to them in different senses; but formerly more widely, including, e.g., the use of the same predicate, without repetition, with two or more subjects; also sometimes applied to cases of irregular construction, in which the single word agrees grammatically with only one of the other words to which it refers (more properly called SYLLEPSIS).

This, if I'm not mistaken, would be the opposite of what Simon Cauchi says Fowler says.

(And I can't work out myself with what exact implication I wrote "would be". Is it conditional or just the colloquial "That would be us" usage discussed at http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1245 ?)

Meanwhile syllepsis is

A figure by which a word, or a particular form or inflexion of a word, is made to refer to two or more other words in the same sentence, while properly applying to or agreeing with only one of them (e.g. a masc. adj. qualifying two ns., masc. and fem.; a sing. verb serving as predicate to two subjects, sing. and pl.), or applying to them in different senses (e.g. literal and metaphorical). Cf. ZEUGMA.

Both entries are illustrated with an 1882 citation referring to

the figure of speech called zeugma, or rather syllepsis, [by which] the same word..is..made to serve two purposes in the same sentence. A verb is often used with two clauses which is only appropriate to one of them, as in Pope's line—‘See Pan with flocks, with fruits Pomona crowned.’

Which, again if I'm not mistaken, would also be an example of chiasmus.

18. ### Bea Moreira said,

March 19, 2009 @ 4:33 pm

Well, nothing tops Cheney's "stuff happens!" response.

Love the post.

19. ### Nathan Myers said,

March 19, 2009 @ 10:25 pm

Harry: I think you're firmly in conditional "would be" territory. The Pope example is strange. I agree it's chiasmus. Decomposing, we have "See Pan with flocks. See with fruits Pomona crowned." Simplifying, "See Pan. See Pomona crowned." I suppose these are different senses of "see".

20. ### Aaron Davies said,

March 20, 2009 @ 12:46 am

Bob Kanefsky rewrote "Madeira" to another tune, and included the great lines "Just a dissipated creep who wears a Rolex on his wrist/On her nerves, too much cologne, and down her power to resist" and "Did she turn down the wrong hallway, his advances, or the sheet?".

21. ### Simon Cauchi said,

March 20, 2009 @ 9:05 pm

@James: I have to say that I don't understand your example of syllepsis ("Kill the boys and the luggage!"), which seems to me a perfectly grammatical imperative that is impossible to obey.
No, Fluellen didn't mean "kill the luggage". He meant "Kill the boys and burn (or otherwise destroy) the luggage". I cited it as an example of zeugma actually, not syllepsis, and was following Fowler in doing so. But if the OED differs from Fowler, I'm happy to defer to the OED.
@ Nathan Myers: The Pope example is strange. I agree it's chiasmus. Decomposing, we have "See Pan with flocks. See with fruits Pomona crowned." Simplifying, "See Pan. See Pomona crowned." I suppose these are different senses of "see".
I prefer a different analysis. "Pan with flocks" is meant to have a complement to make it (disregarding the chiasmus for a moment) match "with fruits Pomona". The poet is trying to make the frame "See . . . crowned" serve to complete them both, but it doesn't work except perhaps as an example of poetic licence.

22. ### Nathan Myers said,

March 21, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

Simon: But how could Pan be crowned with flocks, even poetically? And if we let him be so crowned (poetically), how is it then syllepsis? On reflection I can see how "see" is being used in two different senses, as required for syllepsis, if we simply note Pan mooching about with his flocks, but acknowledge, by direct experience of the ceremony, Pomona's fruity coronation.

23. ### Janice Huth Byer said,

March 22, 2009 @ 12:40 am

Bill Walderman, yes, all of what you say is true. My point is precisely that Mr. Liddy's essay is not a reflection ON Mr. Liddy, because, imo, it's not Of Mr. Liddy, who little doubt, has more important things to do, for which he appears more than qualified, than to pen a piece to submit to a newspaper, which companies like AIG routinely relegate to risk management staff.

No doubt he read it before it was submitted, but that kind of communique is not his expertise, so it casts no aspersion on Mr. Liddy, a busy executive, for my description to call what presumably some staffer wrote "boilerplate".

24. ### Simon Cauchi said,

March 23, 2009 @ 3:36 am

Nathan: we must agree to differ. I still think "Pan with flocks" requires a complement, and "crowned" isn't it, although the poet tries to make it serve the purpose. We are meant to take the line as parallel to (say)
Let bread with jam, with gravy meat be served
where "Let . . . be served" completes both "bread with jam" and "with gravy meat".
Sorry to try to explain Pope's line about Pan and Pomona with such a humdrum comparison.

25. ### Nathan Myers said,

March 25, 2009 @ 9:29 pm

Simon: Masticate your bread and your meat how I will, I find no flavor of syllepsis, only the savory crust of chiasmus. Clearly But if we must so agree, why then we must. But may I offer (entirely non-threateningly, I assure you!), "I shall see thy bet to my ruin, and from a gibbet thee hanged" as a closer but more sylleptically contrastive analog?

26. ### David Harris said,

October 5, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

Nathan: How is 'see' being used differently in the Pope quote, even on your interpretation? See Pan with flocks [surrounded], [see] Pomona with fruits crowned!