Horribles and deplorables

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Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables" is destined to become one of the lasting catchphrases of the campaign season.

Clinton's use of the phrase (which she says she now regrets*) appeared in a speech delivered at a fundraiser on Friday night:

You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.

Clinton had deployed the word deplorables at least once before, in an interview on Israeli TV on Thursday with phrasing similar to Friday night's speech.

If I were to be grossly generalistic, I'd say you can take Trump supporters and put them in two big baskets. There are what I call the deplorables…

Deplorables, whether or not they're in baskets, fit a pattern we've observed in the past: adjectives ending in -able or -ible that are turned into pluralizable nouns. Back in 2008, I looked at horribles and terribles as examples of this pattern:

More generally, many adjectives ending in -able/-ible have spawned related noun forms: think of collectibles, convertibles, deductibles, disposables, intangibles, perishables, and unmentionables. Sometimes the noun overtakes the adjective: vegetable comes from an adjective describing something that is able to vegetate, i.e., grow like a plant.

Pluralized horribles have most often occurred in the set phrase "parade of horribles." For a Boston Globe column in 2012, I traced the "parade of horribles" back to mid-nineteenth-century New England, when austere parades of "ancients and honorables" held on Independence Day were spoofed, burlesque-style, as "antiques and horribles." Shore towns in Massachusetts and Rhode Island have continued the satirical tradition, holding "parades of horribles" every year.

Meanwhile, starting in the 1920s, the phrase entered legal usage as a dismissive term for imagined concerns about a ruling's negative effects. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg memorably referred to "the broccoli horrible" in her opinion on a 2012 Obamacare ruling. (For more, see my followups to the Globe column on Language Log and Vocabulary.com.)

As Nancy Friedman observed on Twitter, there's a rhyming echo of "parade of horribles" in Clinton's "basket of deplorables." Given Clinton's lawyerly background, it's a good guess that "parade of horribles" inspired her turn of phrase. The plural noun deplorables, however, has far more scattered historical usage in English than horribles. The OED defines deplorables as "deplorable ills" and provides a single citation from the journal of Sir Walter Scott:

1828 Scott Jrnl. 10 Apr. (1941) 222 An old fellow, mauld with rheumatism and other deplorables.

From a few years later, here is an attestation in an 1831 journal entry by Thomas Carlyle, pairing deplorables with despicables:

Of all the deplorables and despicables of this city and time the saddest are the 'literary men.'

And here's an example from 1901, in a short story published in The Smart Set ("Brocton Mott, Realist," by Kate Jordan):

He turned to the east and took a Third avenue car down town. It carried a load of deplorables; all uninteresting, some offensive.

No word on whether the deplorables in that streetcar were Trump voters.

* As Bloix points out in the comments, Clinton didn't say she regrets using the phrase "basket of deplorables"; rather, she regrets saying that "half of Trump's supporters" could be put in the aforementioned basket.

Update: See this Boston Globe article for more on the spread of the "basket of deplorables" meme. And now Trump has created a commercial called "Deplorables" capitalizing on Clinton's controversial line.

Late update (Sept. 19): Trump and his supporters continue the melioration of deplorables. For more, see "Donald Trump's Deplorables: A Reclamation of the Name" (Kyle Plantz, NH Journal/Inside Sources), with comments from George Lakoff, Michael Silverstein, and Jennifer Sclafani.



41 Comments

  1. Laura Morland said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 4:20 am

    Wonderful piece!

    For the record, I live in Berkeley, read New York-based media daily, and had never before heard the noun "deplorables". (Neither has my spell-checker.)

    And no, those sad folks on the Third Avenue car were likely not Trump supporters. IIRC, the only precincts Trump lost in the primary were in Manhattan!

  2. Brett said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 5:53 am

    To me, "deplorable" is a very strong term. To describe somebody as a "deplorable" merely because they were "uninteresting" seems extremely obnoxious. But usage may have been different in 1901.

  3. Ray said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 7:11 am

    the twitterverse and blogosphere are busy comparing hillary's "baskets of deplorables" to romney's "47%" mishap (in part because she also went on to say that these deplorables were "irredeemable", which is left out of the video clip above), but to my ears the "baskets" part recalls romney's equally deplorable "binders full of women" comment. and today, hillary's "baskets of" is the equivalent of trump's "the". what is it about presidential candidates who so distainfully view people as glops of demographics in containers, physical, semantical, political or otherwise?

  4. Rose Eneri said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 7:18 am

    Please tell me. Is there a rule for when to use -able or -ible in forming an adjective? I never know.

  5. krogerfoot said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 8:19 am

    "What is it about presidential candidates who so disdainfully view people as glops of demographics in containers, physical, semantical, political or otherwise?"

    This is the kind of linguistic banality that suddenly takes on outsized significance once politics is involved. I'd guess that you could comb through the Gospels and the speeches of Lincoln, MLK, and Mr. Rogers and run across equally deplorable examples of viewing groups of people in metaphorical containers.

    I always thought Romney's "binders full of women" comment was a ridiculous thing for him to be bullied for. If I remember correctly, he was referring literally to all the qualified candidates he chose his appointees from, whose profiles or what have you would have been compiled in binders.

  6. Cindy Dashnaw said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 8:48 am

    My experience with "deplorable" comes from C.S. Lewis and his Narnia series. In "The Magician's Nephew," "the deplorable word," once spoken, would end all life in the world except the speaker's. I'm always sad when a word that evokes a strong response or vivid mental picture, whether pleasant or not, gets watered down. Our language becomes so much less colorful.

  7. Eric P Smith said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 9:10 am

    @Rose Eneri: I have used the following material before, but not on Language Log.

    The ending -able in most older adjectives corresponds to the Latin ending -abilis. A Latin adjective in -abilis always comes from a Latin verb in -are (a so-called first-conjugation verb). Most older adjectives in -able come to us through French from Latin, and the pattern is always exactly the same. An example is the English adjective demonstrable, from the Latin adjective demonstrabilis, from the Latin verb demonstrare, to show. Those adjectives are not made from an English verb by adding a suffix -able – there is no English verb *demonstr.

    English adjectives ending in -ible generally come in the same way from Latin adjectives in -ibilis, from Latin verbs in -ere, -ere and -ire (verbs of the second, third and fourth conjugation respectively). Again, no question of an e. To know an -able from an -ible you need to know your Latin.

    English is a resourceful language, and pretty soon adjectives came to be coined from arbitrary verbs, including Saxon ones, by adding -able by a false analogy with the Latin suffix. For example, liftable, "that may be lifted", is coined by adding -able to the verb lift. These newer adjectives may never have seen any Latin in their lives. Moreover, we are free to coin adjectives of our own in that way. The ending -able used in this way is a productive suffix, which means that even prescriptive grammarians allow you to coin your own instances from any verb you please. You don't have to find them in a dictionary. I will call the ending -able in such cases an English suffix. And it's always -able, never -ible.

  8. Avattoir said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 9:12 am

    How about "legion of horribles"?

    See this passage from Cormac McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian:

    "A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses' ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse's whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen's faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools."

    Almost every part of this description fits Trump supporters or the reactionary media. Lip jerks and drooling seem like features not bugs of the R side in this election.

    Naturally, the basket cases are upset at being so exposed.

  9. Eric P Smith said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 9:14 am

    Sorry, in the above post ignore the bits "Again, no question of an e" and "I will call the ending -able in such cases an English suffix". These made sense in the original context of the material, but not in the above regurgitation.

  10. Bloix said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 9:36 am

    She DID NOT "regret" saying "basket of deplorables." She regretted saying "half." This is important and it's something the media appears to be determined to get wrong.

    Here's what she said when she used the phrase:

    You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?

    [Laughter/applause]

    The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now how 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America. But the other basket — and I know this because I see friends from all over America here — I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas — as well as, you know, New York and California — but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they're just desperate for change. It doesn't really even matter where it comes from. They don't buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won't wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroine, feel like they're in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

    And this is the "regret" statement:

    "Last night I was 'grossly generalistic,' and that's never a good idea. I regret saying 'half' – that was wrong," Clinton said in a statement, the day after comments at a fundraiser in New York.

    But "Trump has built his campaign largely on prejudice and paranoia," she said, adding: "I won't stop calling out bigotry and racist rhetoric in this campaign."

    [(bgz) Thanks — I've added a clarification about what Clinton says she regrets.]

  11. Robert said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 10:08 am

    Don't put all your deplorables in one basket.

  12. languagehat said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 10:37 am

    Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables" is destined to become one of the lasting catchphrases of the campaign season.

    What a strange thing to say! In general it's impossible to predict what will become lasting catchphrases, but in this particular campaign season it's madness even to try. You could just as well say that Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables" is destined to be as forgotten as all the other memes-for-a-day that have come and gone in the last year or so, and you'd be more likely to be correct.

  13. Ben Zimmer said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 10:49 am

    @languagehat: I feel fairly confident in my prediction, given how furiously Clinton's opponents have seized on the phrase — turning it into "a badge of honor," as the Boston Globe put it. Take a look at the Twitter hashtag #BasketOfDeplorables, which has been trending ever since the speech was publicized.

  14. languagehat said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 11:00 am

    *shakes head sadly*

    You are too immersed in the daily news cycle, my friend. Twitter hashtags come and Twitter hashtags go. But we'll see in a couple of months how deeply this unforgettable tempest has remained fixed in the memory of mankind.

  15. Rodger C said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 11:44 am

    Those adjectives are not made from an English verb by adding a suffix -able – there is no English verb *demonstr.

    There is, however, a verb "demonstrate."

    adjectives came to be coined from arbitrary verbs, including Saxon ones, by adding -able by a false analogy with the Latin suffix

    In what sense is it false?

  16. Rodger C said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 11:44 am

    @Avattoir: And one can also say of Trump supporters, "Oh my God."

  17. Victor Mair said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 11:49 am

    People are already putting baskets in their yards, and I've seen folks referring to themselves as "Deplorable Rick", "Deplorable Ted", "Deplorable Sally", etc.

    "Basket of deplorables" — it's a memorable phrase, like "Where's the beef?"

  18. peterv said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 12:22 pm

    @Eric P Smith, @Roger C:

    In what sense can any analogy be false? Truth (or falsity) is a property of a linguistic assertion about reality that refers to its relationship (or non-relationship) to reality. An analogy is a comparison of one aspect of reality with another. Since any such comparison is a component of the world of linguistic utterances or thoughts about reality, rather an aspect of reality itself, I don't see how it makes sense to speak of such a comparison being true or false.

    An analogy may be effective or not (as a speech act) or fruitful or not (as a form of thought or as a motivation for action), but not true or false.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 3:56 pm

    If she regretted saying "half", what does that imply? That she wished she had said "all"?

  20. Paul Kay said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 4:06 pm

    I agree with krogerfoot. I had no sympathy for Romney, but the "binders full of women" comment seemed to me utterly undeserving of the scorn and opprobrium it attracted. I wonder if he had said something like "binders full of women's resumes" it would have had the same effect. Was it just the obviously unintended, surrealistic image of a physical woman in a physical binder?

  21. Levantine said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 4:19 pm

    The meaning of her regret is obvious enough. She believes that many of Trump's supporters are deplorable (which they are) but wishes she hadn't given such a high estimate of their number. Whether she actually thinks the percentage is lower is another question; I suspect she's just trying to be diplomatic at this point.

    It's telling that Trump is congratulated by many for saying things as he sees them, yet Hillary is taken to task for doing likewise. It was, by traditional standards, an impolitic statement to make, but if "authenticity" is what the current mood now demands of politicians, she should surely be lauded for her frankness.

  22. Ralph Hickok said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 4:48 pm

    I don't really think her comment was parallel to Romney's reference to the 47%. For one thing, his was not meant to be a public statement; he made at a private gathering and, IIRC, someone there recorded it on a cellphone and released it to the public. I doubt that Romney would have said it if he had known that was going to happen.

    The reason he wouldn't have said it publicly is that 47% encompassed a large number of independent and/or undecided voters whose votes might have gone to Obama rather than Romney because they took offense at what he said. Clinton's comment was quite clearly aimed at voters who have already decided that they will vote for Trump. I don't think that it can lose her any votes.

  23. maidhc said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 5:02 pm

    I think it's just sexism in pursuit of politics. Trump has made far worse statements than this and nobody blinks an eye.

    There's no parallel to Romney. He was just saying "poor people suck amirite". But being a racist is a choice that people make and they deserve to be called out for it.

  24. Steve Morrison said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 8:03 pm

    People are already putting baskets in their yards, and I've seen folks referring to themselves as "Deplorable Rick", "Deplorable Ted", "Deplorable Sally", etc.

    Which reminds me of the Old Contemptibles.

  25. Ray said,

    September 11, 2016 @ 9:29 pm

    @krogerfoot: "What is it about presidential candidates who so disdainfully view people as glops of demographics in containers, physical, semantical, political or otherwise?" This is the kind of linguistic banality that suddenly takes on outsized significance once politics is involved.

    I was, of course, being facetious (because, golly gosh, all politicians do this, almost instinctively, with eyes glued to demographics and polls). but on second thought, maybe there is something to the reality that voters, especially during an election, like to be counted, but don't necessarily like to be containered (as baskets, binders, percentages). identity politics is a sword that cuts both ways, when the "me" struggles with the "we"…

  26. Francis Boyle said,

    September 12, 2016 @ 5:25 am

    @krogerfoot and Paul Kay

    The objection to "binders full of women" comment was to with the idea that women are things to be selected from a catalogue as and when needed, in the way you might choose a new bookcase. That that is, in fact, the way businesses select lower level employees might also be relevant. It wasn't ridiculous, because it wasn't about what he said, but about what what he said revealed about him and his campaign.

  27. krogerfoot said,

    September 12, 2016 @ 8:45 am

    @ Francis Boyle
    It's not that I don't understand the objection to the comment, but I doubt the sincerity of the idea that this offhand remark revealed something about him. It's like Al Gore's "invented the Internet" and Barack Obama's "cling to guns and religion/you didn't build that," off-the-cuff comments that meant one thing in context, but are mockingly thrown around as proof that they mean another.

    On the other hand, Romney's "47% comment" was part of his prepared remarks. That it was meant to be private really makes the whole thing worse. Either he sees half the voting population that way, or he thought that was what the audience wanted to hear—neither interpretation redeems him much.

  28. Helen said,

    September 12, 2016 @ 12:15 pm

    Choosing the word 'basket' as the container is interesting to me because it made me think of the phrase 'basket case'. One also wonders where they are going in that (hand)basket…

    I have no idea if this was implied or if I'm merely over-thinking as usual.

  29. Francis Boyle said,

    September 12, 2016 @ 12:47 pm

    @krogerfoot

    Except that Gore didn't claim to have invented the internet; he used"create' and 'invent' was substituted in a (very successful) attempt to turn a mildly contentious claim into something risible. Romney however did utter the words attributed to him. Of course it was hyped for political points but the cringeworthiness was right there in the comment. (I know I cringed, reading it for the first time). He might as well have claimed that some his best friends are women.

  30. Victor Mair said,

    September 12, 2016 @ 2:27 pm

    "Donald Trump Releases 'Deplorables,' an Anti-Hillary Clinton Ad"

    (Nick Corasaniti, NYT, 12/12/16)

  31. Eric P Smith said,

    September 12, 2016 @ 5:20 pm

    @petrv, Roger C

    In what sense can any analogy be false?

    What I had in mind is that the ending -able in a word like liftable looks like the ending -able in a word like demonstrable, but is in fact not like it. The former ending is a suffix, the latter is not. I called the likening of the two a false analogy: there may be a better way of putting it.

  32. Ray said,

    September 12, 2016 @ 9:01 pm

    @krogerfoot: "On the other hand, Romney's "47% comment" was part of his prepared remarks."

    as ben zimmerman's post shows, hillary clinton's use of "baskets of deplorables" was also evidentlly prepared, since she used the same phrase in her interview on israeli teevee on 8 sept, right before she used the phrase in her "lgbt for hillary gala" talk in nyc on 9 sept.

    @ben zimmerman: your original post, which featured a direct link to the video of hillary clinton addressing the lgbt gala where she uses the phrase "baskets of deplorables," seems to have now replaced this video with a link to a generic "on politics" webpage from usa today. no sign of the video. pretty cool, right? (what's going on?)

  33. Rodger C said,

    September 13, 2016 @ 6:58 am

    @Eric P Smith: I'm now quite confused by your assertion that the -able in liftable isn't a suffix.

  34. Eric P Smith said,

    September 13, 2016 @ 10:03 am

    @Rodger C: My point is that -able is a suffix in liftable, and it isn't a suffix in demonstrable.

  35. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 13, 2016 @ 10:52 am

    What I find interesting is that while one can easily imagine the candidate saying both "basket" and "deplorable(s)" separately in a perfectly dull-in-context way, the combination is extraordinarily striking, partially because once visualized it's simultaneously grotesque and comical. It's as if she had been flipping through a book of old Edward Gorey drawings when one caught her eye …

  36. Ellen K. said,

    September 13, 2016 @ 12:55 pm

    The original question though, was simply how to know whether to spell a word with -able or -ible, and demonstrable was not a good example of "you have to know Latin or just memorize it", since, for that word, the connection with demonstrate lets us know it's -able.

    So far, the only rule I've figured out that seems to be consistent is that if the root is a single syllable and a full word, then it's -able.

    When using a spell check, I think we can also say, if the word is not in the spell check, but the root is a word that is in the spell check, go with -able.

  37. Victor Mair said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 9:11 am

    cross-posted to Slate

    cited by ABC News

    also on Vox

  38. Rod Johnson said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 12:24 pm

    It feels like a lot of the media talk is fixated on "half," as if Clinton literally intended to say a quantifiable 50%. But don't we use half to mean "one division of two," whether it's equal or not? We talk about "the big half" and "the little half," or "the front half" or "the back half" of a piece of property, without ascertaining that the halves are equal. How equal do two portions have to be to count as a half? Do we need another term, like "moiety," to denote inexact halves?

  39. Ray said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 8:47 pm

    @ Rod Johnson: well, since the clinton camp has come out and said it was wrong for the hills to say "half", then there's your answer. she meant it and regretted it, literally. seems we are all critters of the media.

  40. Rod Johnson said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 9:23 pm

    *shrug* I don't believe she meant precisely half—I think it was just a loose use of the word—but I commend the campaign for having the good sense not to lawyer this. My question, though, is, does "half" necessarily denote two more or less equal portions, or does it just mean "a division into two"? Sort of like OE thrithing and farthing didn't denote three or four precisely equal portions.

  41. Victor Mair said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 12:21 pm

    "Les Déplorables: Hillary Clinton names the five phobias of Donald Trump's political supporters."

    Daniel Henninger, WSJ, 9/14/16

    With a very clever piece of artwork at the top and a video interview with Dan Henninger, the author: "Trump's 'Deplorables' Fight Back", focusing on the backlash against political correctness.

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