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Josh Marshall, "Did Dave Brat Fib About Princeton?", TPM 6/11/2014:

The Post suggests that Brat was trying to give would-be supporters the sense he locked horns with the elites on an Ivy League campus. And if that was the plan or the impression. That's really not right. But picture, I don't think there's much to see here. As a gotcha, it's an extremely weak one.


This is apparently a short form of the adverbial adjunct "big picture", which is sometimes used to mean something like "all in all" or "bottom line", as in these web examples:

It may sting, but big picture, I'm ok…
Oh, but big picture, I am majoring in biology.
Ergo, picking bottoms is a fools errand, but big picture – I think we're significantly closer to the bottom than the top.
But big picture, I was real pleased with the way Drew played.
So big picture, I know we've got to really step it up in these last nine games if we want to reach our goals and our potential.
So, big picture? I'm having a pretty amazing year.
So big picture it is ahead of where most thought it would be.
It's a good win, and big picture it's great.
And big picture, it sets a bad precedent for future licensing deals.
Christian compromises on something like this because, big picture, he loves this man, wants him to be happy and recognizes that this is something important to to him.

So maybe Josh just left out the "big" by mistake . The unwanted sentence-boundary punctuation in "And if that was the plan or the impression. That's really not right." suggests that the passage was not very carefully proofread. But we could be witnessing the birth of an idiom.







  1. James said,

    June 11, 2014 @ 7:45 pm

    My hunch is that having typed 'but', his fingers felt like he had already typed 'big'.

  2. Chris C. said,

    June 11, 2014 @ 9:46 pm

    That last paragraph seems to be a bit of a mess. "And if that was the plan or the impression. That's really not right," was probably meant to be one sentence.

  3. TR said,

    June 11, 2014 @ 10:28 pm

    Could Marshall have been dictating to speech recognition software? That might explain both the mispunctuation, and the "but" as an error for "big".

  4. X said,

    June 11, 2014 @ 10:51 pm

    Isn't the more interesting linguistic notion that you can use the word "Princeton" to denote any random institution that happens to be in a town named Princeton when you know your audience will believe you are talking about the Princeton University?

    Is there a word for this kind of deception? Lying with homophones?

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 12, 2014 @ 12:10 am

    @X: here are some sentences I found via a cursory dip into google books:

    "I was in seminary at Princeton, and I was given a grant to spend the summer in India."

    "The direct seminary sojourns and an experience when I worked while my husband attended seminary at Princeton affirmed my sense of call to ministry."

    "By the time he entered seminary at Princeton, he had enough Hebrew to win the institution's top prize for that language; by the time he left, he'd learned Chaldean and Arabic, too."

    "The Scripture—read by his son, Joe, recently returned from seminary at Princeton—was from Matthew's account of the Last Supper."

    I am doubtful that any of those four sentences was written with deceptive intent – rather, they are evidence that "Princeton" is unsurprisingly sometimes used as a short form of "Princeton Theological Seminary," just as it is used as a short form of "Princeton University." The following sounds perfectly natural to me: "Q: "Where did you get your M.Div.? A: Princeton."

    Now, where it's not clear from context that the degree obtained was in divinity, there is certainly potential for confusion (although there is the potential of confusion in any event because even if you spelled out "Princeton Theological Seminary" you have no particular assurance that your audience will understand the rather inside-baseball point that that institution's connection with Princeton University is not fully analogous to Harvard Divinity School's connection with Harvard University), and it is certainly possible that someone drafting talking points for campaign literature consciously hoped to trade on that ambiguity. But I don't think that's the only possibility. American University is (whether for doctoral work in economics or anything) several steps down the perceived-prestige hierarchy from Princeton (I'm trying to be descriptive here, not condescending), and the same piece mentions that he went there, which might not be what you'd do if you were primarily trying to fool the credentials-snob demographic.

    FWIW, in terms of the prestige hierarchy for mainline Protestant seminaries, my admittedly fuzzy understanding is that Princeton is basically as high up as you can go — there may be rivals (e.g. UTS, which is right across the street from Columbia University and kinda-sorta affiliated but not really part of it), but no one is going to say you should definitely go to X over Princeton for your M. Div. because of perceived resume value (assuming that in this sinful and broken world even people feeling a call to the ordained ministry sometimes think about such vulgar things as perceived resume value). In particular, I'm reasonably confident that a typical mainline congregation search committee looking to call a new pastor is not going to be more impressed by a Harvard (or Yale) M. Div. than a Princeton M. Div. despite the different nature of the connection to the adjoining university.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 12, 2014 @ 1:24 am

    Perhaps this thread would be an opportune place to restate one of my pet peeves, viz. that the fact that Princeton (U., not Th. Sem.) is viewed as one of the nation's highest-prestige full-spectrum research universities despite not having a proper linguistics department is an embarrassment and a shonda fur den goyim, as a painful reminder of the continuing marginality of linguistics as an academic discipline. I mean, even if 99% of your students/donors don't personally care about that dead-language stuff, university presidents/trustees interested in institutional prestige generally understand that you ought to have a classics department, because having a classics department sends a certain signal and not having a classics department sends a different but equally meaningful signal. That not having a linguistics department is not perceived as sending an unequivocal "this is not really a serious university" signal is a real problem.

  7. X said,

    June 12, 2014 @ 1:46 am

    @J. W. Brewer: Certainly, I did not claim that there exist no contexts in which "Princeton" may refer to "Princeton Theological Seminary". That does not imply that one cannot be deceptive. Here's a good one from my life:

    "I've written a paper with Einstein and been taught personally by Christ."

    Ted Einstein and Norm Christ, that is… Is my true statement a lie just because you were thinking of some other people of the same names?

  8. Keith said,

    June 12, 2014 @ 1:48 am

    I really find it difficult to read texts like that one. The writer seems to want to save time by leaving out conjunctions and by not re-reading and correcting his text, but that means that I have to read it at least three times before I can think that I have perhaps understood it, and even then I'm not sure.

    But to get back to "the birth of an idiom"…

    You suggest that "picture" is "apparently a short form of the adverbial adjunct 'big picture'". I immediately thought that he had simply missed out the word "this". He is asking the reader to imagine a possible situation, "picture this".

    But the whole text is, in my eyes, a mess. Here's another pearl from it:

    "PTS is definitely not 'liberal' in the sense of what that general means at elite universities".

  9. richardelguru said,

    June 12, 2014 @ 6:15 am


    "I've written a paper with Einstein and been taught personally by Christ."

    That would make you older than you look.

  10. marie-lucie said,

    June 12, 2014 @ 8:50 am

    I would not think "older", I would think "certifiably crazy".

  11. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 12, 2014 @ 11:12 am

    Typically we think that whether something should be classified as a "lie" depends on, among other necessary elements, the subjective intent of the person who makes the statement. Potentially ambiguous statements that are intended one way by the speaker and (let us stipulate not particularly surprisingly) understood a different way by the listener are reasonably common but are I think also a murky area both morally and practically – in part because I think intuitions will vary as to whose responsibility as between speaker and listener it is to identify the possibility of a misunderstanding and make sure it is clarified.* When the communication is in writing rather than in the middle of conversation, the ability to spot the issue and clarify in real-time is obviously impaired, but Geoff Pullum has talked from time to time about "nerdview," where the writer knows what he means but lacks the self-awareness to realize that the intended audience may not understand that intended meaning. I certainly don't mean to rule out the possibility of actual subjective intent to deceive here, just to state that I don't think it's compelled by the available evidence.

    *This assumes arguendo that the misunderstanding is significant enough that it needs to be clarified, which in turn depends on the notion that the difference in perceived degree of intellectual-eliteness between Princeton U. (I guess including the prestigious reputation of the hypothetical div school it does not in fact have) and Princeton Th. Sem. is material to the intended audience, and I am not convinced that is the case. One might also consider the relevance of the fact that according to what I read on the internet a lot of key potential swing voters in this particular primary were evangelical Christians and the Brat campaign was trying to attract their support. Such voters might be substantially more likely than average to have heard of Pr. Th. Sem. as such (e.g. because of the great historical importance to the development of their particular ecclesial subculture of the fundamentalist/modernist factional split in the faculty there in the early 20th century, with the final triumph of the modernists being very easy to conceptualize in hindsight as a conflict between "rural values" and the "intellectual elite"). Indeed, such voters might even find having gone to Pr. Th. Sem. more impressive than having gone to the secular place down the street. In hindsight, if you wanted to appeal to a coalition of grass-roots GOP voters with strong feelings about both religiously-loaded "values" issues *and* free-market economic-policy issues, recruiting a candidate with what I assume is the statistically unusual combination of an M. Div. and a Ph.D. in economics is quite a stroke of luck.

  12. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 12, 2014 @ 11:21 am

    I knew someone once who claimed to have been taught by Plato.

    (Jan von Plato.)

  13. Breffni said,

    June 12, 2014 @ 1:02 pm

    X, JWB: that kind of thing is sometimes called mental reservation. It made the headlines in Ireland a few years ago when it arose in connection with one of the ecclesiastical scandals, involving Cardinal Desmond Connell (note 8 in his Wikipedia entry has a long quote in which he explains the concept to a commission of investigation).

  14. Alan Shaw said,

    June 12, 2014 @ 1:57 pm

    The mobile-keyboard swipe gesture for "but" is very close to that for "big."

  15. L said,

    June 12, 2014 @ 2:46 pm

    Tangent: I have once or twice run across a description of Michelle Obama as "a Princeton-educated lawyer." (FWIW, when I've come across this, it's been by critics of the Obamas, not supporters.)

    Michelle Obama is Princeton-educated. And she is a lawyer. But the statement to me implies that she got her legal education at Princeton. Which is impossible, because there is no Princeton Law School.

    A lie?

  16. hector said,

    June 12, 2014 @ 3:06 pm

    "I knew someone once who claimed to have been taught by Plato.

    (Jan von Plato.)

    — Anyone who has read The Republic and paid attention has been taught by Plato.

  17. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 12, 2014 @ 3:27 pm

    The stronger version, at least, of mental reservation (which seems to me simply a convoluted form of crossing ones fingers via internal monologue) is not what I'm talking about, and to the extent America's first Jesuit-educated President tried it when testifying under oath about the nature of his dealings with Miss Lewinsky, it did not end well for him.

    The question here is more how to assess when a truthful-in-isolation statement is deliberately misleading by omission. If someone who was a graduate of, say, the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (I picked that campus at random, no disrespect intended) said he'd gone to the "University of Wisconsin" w/o further specification in a context where it was highly likely the listener/reader would assume that meant "University of Wisconsin-Madison" and the omission was intentionally designed to evoke that misunderstanding (with the speaker having some plausible hope of benefiting from the misunderstanding due to differences in the perceived prestige level of the campuses), that would be worthy of condemnation. Again, I'm certainly not ruling out the possibility that that's what was going on with at least one of the the short-form "Princeton" usages here, I'm just not convinced that's the only or even necessarily most likely possibility.

  18. Clark Cox said,

    June 12, 2014 @ 3:34 pm

    Or it was just a simple typo: 'i' is right next to 'u' and 'g' is right below 't' on a standard keyboard. That is, he meant to type "Big picture, …" without "but" at all.

  19. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 12, 2014 @ 3:50 pm

    L: it's hard to see why "Princeton-educated lawyer" would be more pejorative than "Harvard-educated lawyer" (to good salt-of-the-earth hard-working Americans suspicious of coastal elites) even assuming (perhaps plausibly) a mass audience that does not know that Princeton lacks a law school. So if it were intended to be misleading, what would be the motive? (Indeed, part of my thesis on the Brat thing is that Princeton Theological Seminary is, as an empirical matter, at least as prestigious within its genre of institution as a hypothetical divinity school that was administratively part of Princeton University would likely be.)

  20. a George said,

    June 12, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

    getting back to the original surprise: "picture" in an unexpected place. To me it would make sense if he really had wanted to write "figure", as a verb. Then suddenly, even "picture" makes some sense — as a verb, although I believe that one would be more likely to use "figure", as in "go figure".

  21. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 13, 2014 @ 11:24 am

    The British novelist, politician and ex-prisoner Jeffrey Archer attended Wellington School in Somerset (at the actual place, Wellington). Sometimes, by simply saying he was at Wellington, he was thought to be claiming to have attended the more prestigious Wellington College in Berkshire (named in honour of the Duke thereof). Whether there was any intentional deception I'm not sure, given that the number of people to whom the difference between the two institutions mattered is probably quite small.

    Archer also claimed – correctly – to have been at Brasenose College, Oxford; this was also sometimes seen as a deception, on the grounds that he was a student at Oxford's Institute of Education, and only rented rooms in Brasenose. However, this is a misunderstanding of how Oxford works; every student is a member of a college, even if also attached to an institute. There was certainly something odd about his Oxford career, in that he was studying for what is normally a postgraduate certificate while not having a degree, but the statements that he was actually lying about it seem to me ill-founded, and this makes me suspicious of the whole 'oh, but you would naturally take him to mean…' attitude.

  22. scott said,

    June 13, 2014 @ 12:56 pm

    obvs just a typo. marshall's prose is littered with them the past few months

  23. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 13, 2014 @ 1:25 pm

    The combination of the Archer incident (the claim that oh he wasn't "really" in Brasenose) and the prior thread on conspiracy theorizing reminded me of the following. After starting college at Occidental the young Barack Obama transferred to Columbia, where he eventually received his B.A. It has been remarked upon that relatively few people who were students at Columbia in the relevant time remember meeting him (which is not actually all that surprising given that he was a transfer student who lived off-campus). There is a minor anti-Obama conspiracy theory (which I want to stress I believe to be entirely unfounded as an empirical matter) which tries to account for this seeming mystery by speculating that he was not enrolled in Columbia College (the default/unmarked meaning of "Columbia" for a male — in those days — undergraduate not studying engineering) but was instead enrolled in Columbia University's School of General Studies, which is perceived as less prestigious and awards bachelor's degrees primarily to older, part-time, or otherwise "non-traditional" students. The "aha" factor here is presumably supposed to be that having gone to that separate component of the university is so different and prestige-deficient that simply claiming to have gone to "Columbia" without additional disclosure is deceptive. As is often the case (noted in the prior thread) the conspiracy theory is not well thought out because, for example, I would tend to assume the Harvard Law School admissions process is dominated by exactly the sort of credentials snobs who would be more impressed by a graduate of Columbia College than of General Studies, thus making the hypothetical decision to admit a graduate of the latter a more impressive achievement on the part of the student (Obama, according to the conspiracy theory) admitted.

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