Doing stupid

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It's not quite as ineffably koan-like as "The biggest self of self is self," but Gov. Mark Sanford delivered another parsing puzzler in his latest comments to the Associated Press, in which he admits to additional liaisons with his Argentinian mistress and further unspecified "line-crossing" with other women:

What I would say is that I've never had sex with another woman. Have I done stupid? I have.

Since we know that Gov. Sanford has been studying the Bible during his marital/political crisis, perhaps he was thinking of verses like these (from the New International Version):

For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. (Romans 13:3)

Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy. (Revelation 22:11)

My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good. (Jeremiah 4:22)

Then Jesus said to them, "I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?" (Luke 6:9)

In idiomatic English, you can do wrong/right/good/evil — or, in the negative, you can do no wrong/right/good/evil. But you can't just use any adjective in the do X frame to mean 'do that which is X.' What's special about wrong, right, good, and evil is that they can serve as adjectives or nouns ('that which is wrong,' 'that which is right,' etc.).

Stupid, on the other hand, does not generally mean 'that which is stupid.' Admittedly, it is possible to nominalize stupid, given the right context. For instance, there's the idiom stuck on stupid, famously used by General Russel L. Honoré in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (see YouTube clip here). And I could imagine someone saying my stupid on the model of my bad and other sporadic my Adj formations, but even that's a stretch.

(It's also possible to nominalize stupid to mean 'a stupid person.' The OED has this sense back to 1712, in a quote from Richard Steele: "Thou art no longer to drudge in raising the Mirth of Stupids..for thy Maintenance." Nowadays this mostly survives as a disparaging vocative, as in "It's the economy, stupid." And then there are those "I'm with stupid" T-shirts.)

So did Sanford have do wrong or do evil in mind, and then decide mid-sentence to use stupid instead? Perhaps he wanted to combine the sense of do wrong/evil with be/feel/look stupid. Certainly Sanford's behavior covers all of these unspoken possibilities.

(Hat tip, Barbara Zimmer.)


  1. Al said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 11:26 pm

    Maybe he said, "Have I done Stupid?" That would make it a topic for a different blog….

  2. Bruce Rusk said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 11:38 pm

    Maybe not entirely a Sanfordism? A Google Books search finds "Then I did stupid." as a complete sentence in Bone of my Bones, a 1982 novel by Sylvia Wilkinson. (here, unfortunately only snippet view):
    Wilkinson is from, and according to the capsule review on the Google page the novel is set in, North Carolina. Possible regional usage?

  3. Bruce Rusk said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 11:54 pm

    Also, from a gardening forum: "So, I did stupid, twice in one week!"

    (second post here — writer from MO)

    As for antedating and proving current usage, how's June 28, 2009?

  4. John Turner said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 11:58 pm

    How about: "Have I done stupid [things]? I have."

  5. Dave said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 12:00 am

    “Stupid is as stupid does” seems like a nominalization that fits into the same kind of nominalization as “I did stupid,” based on the “beauty” in “beauty is as beauty does” meaning a beautiful person.

  6. dilettante said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 12:07 am

    Or perhaps Sanford is picking up on an internet meme, in the vein of, say: the stupid, it hurts!

    But maybe that usage requires an article: "Have I done a stupid? I have." In any case, let's all do him a solid and overparody his usage in order to render it idiomatic.

  7. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 12:26 am

    @Dave: "Stupid is as stupid does" is a good one, though I never really understood what that Gumpism meant. There's also the line from Texan comedian Ron White, "You can't fix stupid."

  8. rkillings said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 12:34 am

    Of course Sanford can do stupid. One can "do" any adjective in English — and it doesn't have to be an improv teacher giving the instruction.

    Consider this blog comment exchange:
    " Just once, I want to see what happens if far-righties, all five of them, did this to the left. …
    Couldn’t happen. This was a quiet, deliberate academic analysis of the question. The left doesn’t do intellectual, only emotional."

    Now, if Google would only give us part-of-speech wildcards to make it easier to find examples of usage.

  9. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 12:47 am

    @rkillings: "The left doesn't do intellectual, only emotional" is a different type of do Adj construction. For more on this, see William Safire's Apr. 12 "On Language" column, "I Don't Do 'Do'." As I told Safire, "I don't do X" (where X can be a noun or adjective) is a phrasal template (aka snowclone) apparently modeled on "I don't do windows." The OED draft additions for do include this sense: "With adjective as complement: to (be able to) exhibit the behaviour described. Freq. in negative constructions." Citations include "I don't do polite," from a 1991 Usenet post.

    The phrasal structure for these (don't) do Adj formations is pretty fixed, and they tend to refer to abstract states rather than discrete actions of "doing." In other words, do is stative in these examples. Note that it would sound very peculiar to say "Has the left done intellectual?" or "Have I done polite?" So I don't see it as quite the same as what Sanford was attempting.

  10. Franz Bebop said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 12:58 am

    How about a box of stupid. Sometimes accompanied by a bag of money.

  11. Franz Bebop said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 1:00 am

    I meant to hyperlink those two phrases:"box+of+stupid""a+bag+of+money+and+a+box+of+stupid"

  12. Bruce Rusk said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 1:04 am

    Another possible derivation, less specifically Southern than Interwebby: "full of stupid" is analogous to "full of fail" and appears on chat boards, especially those related to video games and comic books. It is not the same as Sanford's usage, meaning something more like "stupidity" than "stupid behavior."

    "This is so full of stupid that I can't even *begin* to comprehend how someone can be this idiotic." (

    "This issue is so full of stupid that I have trouble believing that the main AA book is worth buying even as kindling." (

  13. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 1:14 am

    @ Franz & Bruce: The mass-nouning in phrases like "box of stupid" and "full of stupid" has recently been discussed on the American Dialect Society mailing list — see this thread.

  14. Garrett Wollman said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 1:54 am

    I've certainly complained of "an attack of the stupids" before, which seems analogous. Another example: "[Dragonlance:] It's like someone took 8bit Theatre, then removed all the Story and all the Funny, leaving only distilled stupid."

  15. Steve Politzer-Ahles said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 7:50 am

    @ Franz, Bruce, and Benjamin: I think mass-nouning of adjectives has been around for a pretty long time, although it may have been more novel in the past. I remember those little "Did you eat a bowl of stupid for breakfast?" buttons from when I was in high school (which was not before the Internet, but was certainly before FAIL et al. existed). So chat and online gaming probably didn't create these usages, although they may have somewhat popularized them and made them less clever and less marked (although they still look pretty marked to me).

  16. Bobbie said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 8:10 am

    "The only way they will [sell the overpriced house] is if they find a two-suitcase buyer – a buyer with one suitcase that is full of money and another suitcase that is full of stupid!" Dirk Zeller – motivational speaker

  17. Mark Liberman said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 8:45 am

    Another source for the nouning of stupid is the common web phrase "The stupid, it burns".

    I doubt that this is relevant to Gov. Sanford's phrase, though.

  18. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 9:26 am

    It may be worth noting that Ernest Hemingway often used "crazy" and "crazies" as nouns, though he did it as a literal translation from the Spanish, in which "loco" can mean either "crazy" or "a crazy person." I have the vague idea that he may have done the same occasionally with "stupid," but I'm not at all sure.

  19. Brian said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 9:57 am

    I have heard people saying they have "Done a stupid?" before.

    The man is not playing with a full deck of cards to begin with, so…

  20. rpsms said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 10:55 am


    "I've done stupid" -"stupid things"

    brings up a number of hits for a financial self-help type named Ramsey.

  21. rootlesscosmo said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 10:58 am

    And that’s what we’ll be trying to do.
    MB:  Bring the stupid?
    MS:  Not precisely.  Bring the stupid higher

    From Michael Bérubé's "interview" with GOP Chairman Michael Steele, at

  22. Ellen K. said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

    I read "Have I done stupid" as an illusion to "do it" as a reference to sex.

  23. Wicked Lad said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

    Al wrote, "Maybe he said, 'Have I done Stupid?' That would make it a topic for a different blog…."

    I read that, then paused, then laughed and laughed…out loud. Thank you, Al.

  24. Sili said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 1:28 pm

    It doesn't sound that bad to me – I'd happily use "My stupid" in parallel with "My bad", too.

    Could there be some sorta of distancing at work? It seems that "I've done stupid" is different from "I've been stupid". It's not something I am it's something I've done – something separate from my innate being.

  25. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

    For "stupid" meaning "a stupid person" (which is not Sanford's use), I don't know if Hemingway used it or not but surely the classic example in canonical English literature is "Some stupid with a flare gun / Burned the place to the ground," from the lyrics to "Smoke On the Water."

  26. Emily said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

    There's also a Livejournal community called "stupid free", which frequently uses stupid as a noun, apparently with a variety of meanings: "instance of stupidity", "stupid person", "stupidity"(as a mass noun, in contexts like "The stupid, it burns!"). However, I doubt Sanford picked it up there or elsewhere on the Internet, but I think it more likely that he got "have I done wrong?" confused with "have I been stupid?" or "have I done stupid things?", all of which would have fit what he was saying.

  27. Jonathan said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

    Of course there's Roberto de Vicenzo's famous quote on losing the Masters in 1968 from signing an mistaken scorecard. "What a stupid I am!" Then again, English is not his native language.

  28. Ben F. said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 3:56 pm

    I hear it as a cannibalization of "let's do lunch"–you know, "let's get together, we'll do stupid." I also hear echoes of the other informal consturction "I don't do x," as in, "Sorry, I don't do [Fox News mornings, pink, etc]." Of course, Sanford's is a positive statement, but that's what it brought to mind.

  29. Aaron Davies said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 1:09 am

    there's also the lolcatism "I cannot brain today, I have the dumb"

  30. John said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 10:20 am

    I haven't listened to the audio, but I wonder if there is a pause after "stupid". I find that sometimes I'm talking, and censor an expletive between thinking and speaking, leaving an audible pause.

    Perhaps he was going to say "Have I done stupid shit?" and just censored "shit".

  31. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 10:33 am

    @ John: That's an interesting thought. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to track down the audio for this portion of the interview. Anyone know where to find it online?

  32. Duncan said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

    At the risk of courting controversy, I don't think the General's 'stuck on stupid' actually counts. At least; I don't think it /definitely/ counts.

    There are two colloquialisms the general might be using: 'stuck on you' vs 'stuck on 'slow".

    1) There's a bizarre Matt Damon conjoined twin comedy with the former as its title. The title itself is obviously a pun. The colloquialism the pun has as it's non-conjoined twin meaning appears [to me] to be an adhesive based metaphor. "I'm sticking with you, cause I'm made out of glue'. So yeah, the general could be saying "you're stuck on stupid" in the sense of "your comments have a constant association [are adhered to] The Stupid".


    2) for examples, there's a wide range of colloquial expressions which work off the shared experience of consumer electronic settings. "Stuck on 'slow'" is the one I've heard most often, but the (famous?) Simpson's quote "There's your problem! Someone set this doll to 'evil'" is a reasonable example of the type of expression in it's non-metaphorical setting. But (and this is the key point) this is NOT an example of the phenomenon described above. Why? Because unlike the phenomenon above any adjective WILL do in this instance. So if the General's comment should be transcribed as "You're stuck on 'stupid'" and understood as "you are acting like a journalism machine which has been set to the 'stupid' setting and refuses to ask non-stupid questions" (which strikes me as the more natural reading, but at any rate is a /plausible/ reading) then it isn't an example of the 'doing stupid' phenomenon.

    Sorry to quibble. Enjoyed the post.

    St Andrews.

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