The WSJ works on the Green Weenie

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David Wessel at the Wall Street Journal's Real Time Economics blog asked Alan Simpson what he meant by "give 'em the Green Weenie", and reports that

When he was in the Army, he says, if you were mistreated or given some lousy task, you were said to have been given “the green weenie.” And if it was really bad, then it was “the green weenie with oak leaf clusters.”

As I explained a few days ago ("'Give 'em the Green Weenie'?", 2/14/2011), that's exactly what the expression meant when I was in the U.S. Army, 15 years after Senator Simpson was. Unfortunately, under this interpretation, Senator Simpson's overall message doesn't make any sense:

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If you have a- hear a politician get up and say
"I know we can get this done, we're going to get rid of all earmarks,
all waste, fraud, and abuse,
all foreign aid, Air Force One, all congressional pensions" — pffft!
That's a sparrow belch in the midst of a typhoon,
that's about six eight ten percent of where we are.
So I'm waiting for the politician to get up and say
"there's only one way to do this,
you dig in to the Big Four: Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and Defense".
And anybody giving you anything different than that,
you want to walk out the door,
stick your finger down your throat, and give 'em a-
the Green Weenie.

So if politicians don't talk about digging into the Big Four, you should arrange for the Army to mistreat them or give them some lousy task? Right.

I'm going to stick with my theory of mixed phallic metaphors, with "give 'em the Green Weenie" as an emphatic euphemism for "give 'em the finger".  (Whatever the explanation, anyhow, I hope that  I make as much sense as Senator Simpson does when I'm as old as he is.)

Of course, all this assumes that David Wessel quoted the former senator accurately. As the WSJ's economics editor, Mr. Wessel is a representative of what Sarah Palin is fond of calling the "lame-stream media", and so perhaps we ought to reserve judgment on his presentation of the facts.  Some additional support for this caution is provided by his way of citing Language Log:

For the panoply of ways in which the phrase has been used and speculation on its origins, see the Language Log tended by scholars from the Linguistic Data Consortium hosted [by] the University of Pennsylvania and — don’t tell Sen. Simpson — funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation.

For the record:

  • Language Log gets no funding from the National Science Foundation, nor from any other government source;
  • In fact, Language Log gets no funding from any source, except that the University of Pennsylvania is kind enough to let us have internet bandwidth and enough electricity to keep our inexpensive linux box running;
  • Except for me, none of the other contributors to LL have any connection to the LDC, and most of them have no connection to the University of Pennsylvania.

Since 2008, the LDC has provided the domain in which LL's web address is parked, and a bit of space to house its (rather modest) server. From 2003 to 2008, LL ran on an obsolete linux box sitting in a corner of a group office at Penn's Institute for Research in Cognitive Science, with a web address in the domain of the Computer Science Department at Penn. When that machine's disk died and I decided to invest in a new one, I arranged to have it set up in the LDC's computer room because the desk at IRCS was due to be removed anyhow.  Both the old machine and the new one were bought with university discretionary funds, and administered by me. (My salary, in turn, comes from the University of Pennsylvania, in return for teaching, research, and a few other chores — blogging is something that I do in my spare time.)

As for "tell[ing] Sen. Simpson", I'd be overjoyed to have him visit the LDC so that we can tell him the story of our involvement over the past 20 years in providing resources for speech and language technology development, in collaboration with the U.S. Defense Department, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and (yes) the National Science Foundation, as well as hundreds of companies, universities, and national laboratories.  In my opinion, the history of this field is an excellent case study in  government/university/industry collaboration for incubating new technologies to the point where they can stand on their own. David Wessel would be most welcome to accompany Senator Simpson, or to visit by himself.


  1. Wes Sawyer said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

    Senator Simpson could likely keep his own school of linguists gainfully employed. He is a linguistic gold mine.

  2. Sili said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 4:21 pm

    In fact, Language Log gets no funding from any source

    Only because you refuse to take donations.

  3. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » The WSJ works on the Green Weenie [] on said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 4:25 pm

    […] Language Log » The WSJ works on the Green Weenie – view page – cached February 16, 2011 @ 2:42 pm · Filed by Mark Liberman under Language and Tags […]

  4. Grep Agni said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 4:51 pm

    I think he meant the scholars were funded by the NSF, not LL itself.

    [(myl) I don't know what he meant, but what he said was "scholars from the Linguistic Data Consortium, hosted [by] the University of Pennsylvania and funded … by the National Science Foundation". It would be quite strange to say that I'm "hosted" by the University that I work for — and even odder to say that Geoff Pullum at Edinburgh and Geoff Nunberg at Berkely and Arnold Zwicky at Stanford and Phil Resnik at UMD and Steven Bird in Australia, etc., are "hosted" by Penn — whereas "hosted" is exactly the right word to use for the host institution of a consortium. Thus the LDC is hosted by Penn, just as the W3C Consortium is hosted by MIT.

    But on either interpretation, what he wrote was misleading, to the extent that it's not entirely false.]

  5. Theodore said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 5:19 pm

    I missed the original G.W. post. A couple thoughts on origin and other uses:Have a look at the Wikipedia picture of the Commendation Medal and notice that the Joint Service version of this medal is green and somewhat phallic.
    At least around the time of its construction, Helmut Jahn's Oakbrook Terrace Tower was known disparagingly in its suburban Chicago vicinity as the "Green Weenie". Not sure if veterans had anything to do with the moniker.

  6. D.O. said,

    February 17, 2011 @ 1:52 am

    funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation.

    He probably tried to be entertaining. Hey, what's the truth compared to a good punchline? I wouldn't be terribly surprised if sen. Simpson never proposed to defund the NSF.

    [(myl) This particular punchline evokes Senator Proxmire's Golden Fleece Award (1975-1988). The implication, I take it, is that the NSF is paying people to do frivolous things like trying to figure out what "the Green Weenie" means — a task that is perhaps more properly the role of private-sector organizations like the WSJ.

    Funding of allegedly frivolous science was one of Senator Proxmire's favorite targets. According to a 1998 presentation by Richard Atkinson:

    Around this time Senator Proxmire began presenting Golden Fleece awards for instances of government fraud, waste, or abuse. An early award went to the Air Force for spending $2,000 per toilet seat for bombers. But soon Proxmire's interest shifted to NSF, and the agency became a perfect target. One of the early awards was a Golden Fleece for a research grant entitled "The Sexual Behavior of the Screw-worm Fly." Proxmire got tremendous attention for that; I'll return to it a little later.

    When he delved into the social sciences, he found an NSF-supported grant dealing with an experimental analysis of love from a social/psychological perspective, and another grant concerned with a theory of love. At that time the National Enquirer was paying a $500 bounty to freelance reporters who came up with a story of this sort, and many writers would just scan the titles of research projects supported by NSF. The Chicago Tribune had a field day with the theory of love grant, and as if this weren't bad enough, they found a project titled "A Theory of Necking Behavior." We tried in vain to find this grant on NSF's list of social science projects. Days later we finally unearthed it among the engineering projects–the necking referred to was of a metal, not a human, variety.

    Several of the faculty grantees who were recipients of the Golden Fleece wore it proudly as a badge of merit and made the most of their notoriety on the Johnny Carson show. This was serious business for NSF, however, because it played havoc with the Foundation's public image and relations with Congress.

    I don't know that Senator Simpson has ever indulged in NSF-baiting of this sort; and in his work on the deficit commission, as in the quoted CNN interview, he explicitly downplays the role of "waste, fraud and abuse" (real or imagined) in creating or solving the problem. However, I take Mr. Wessel to be aiming a jocular (and typically inaccurate) swipe at government funding of apparently frivolous activities.]

  7. iching said,

    February 17, 2011 @ 3:04 am

    @myl: Apologies for going OT, but I was struck by the phrase you used at the end of your reply to the comment from Grep Agni, "…what he wrote was misleading to the extent that it's not entirely false." It just occurred to me that the phrase "to the extent that" can be interpreted in two different ways with opposite meanings.
    1. What he wrote was misleading to the extent that it is entirely false.
    (meaning "…was misleading to the point of being entirely false")
    2. What he wrote was misleading to the extent that it's not entirely false.
    (meaning A: "…was misleading to the point of having some truth to it"
    meaning B: "…was at least misleading if not worse than that")

    At first I read 2. with meaning A and was puzzled, but quickly cottoned on to meaning B from the context. But I find it curious that 1. can seem to have the same meaning as 2. although it is the exact negation. Am I completely crazy?!

  8. D.O. said,

    February 17, 2011 @ 3:51 am

    Re: Golden Fleece Awards. I guess today the honor to be a judge of what is the ridiculous (or wasteful) scientific project was assumed by (acting) Sens. Coburn and McCain. I cannot resist to quote W.S.Guilbert : "And noble statesmen do not itch/ To interfere with matters which/ They do not understand".

  9. Dan Lufkin said,

    February 17, 2011 @ 10:00 am

    Golden Fleece lives on!

    Majority Leader Eric Cantor has been trolling for suspicious NSF grants for some time.

  10. Nathan said,

    February 17, 2011 @ 10:59 am

    @iching: I would explain your apparent paradox by arguing that "to the extent that" can refer to something extending in either direction.

  11. linguistician said,

    February 17, 2011 @ 11:48 am

    Back in the mid 1990s a boneheaded Canadian politician named Randy White denounced a Canadian granting agency for funding research on "Lie Theory", not realizing this was a legitimate area of mathematical research: Randy White and Lie Theory.

  12. seriously said,

    February 20, 2011 @ 5:21 pm

    Clear shortage of Pirates fans here; the green weenie (or at least, one iteration of the green weenie) came from Bob Prince back in the sixties. It's even in Wikipedia (so it must be true.)

    [(myl) No, the shortage is of link-followers…]

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