Palin perseverates

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According to karoll at Crooks and Liars ("Sarah Palin Wonders Aloud if Libya Action is a 'Squirmish'", 3/29/2011):

Madam Malaprop, thy name is Sarah Palin. […] Called in by Fox News to deconstruct President Obama's speech, she wonders aloud whether the Libya action is a war, an intervention or a "squirmish".

And so she does, at about 0:21 of the Fox News clip below:

More exactly, the passage is:

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And you know, another big question that has to be asked, Greta, is "Are we at war?"
I- I haven't heard the president say that we are at war,
and- and that's why I too uh am not knowing
do we use this- the term 'intervention', do we use 'war',
do we w- use uh 'squirmish', what is it?

Let's start by stipulating that squirmish aptly describes the way many people feel about the fighting in Libya. Because of this, and because of Sarah Palin's star power, it may well gain currency in a sense that is closer to the  first Urban Dictionary entry ("A verbal stoush between two or more parties that is so petty, pointless, misinformed or ill-conceived that it makes witnesses wince with embarrassment, or so uncomfortable that they don't know where to look") than to the Wordnik entry ("showing signs of restlessness resulting from feelings of discomfort or distress"). Though of course the current fighting is Libya is in fact serious and bloody enough, and I certainly hope for a good outcome.

But is it likely that Ms. Palin intended this witty coinage? or that this was really a clasical malapropism, meaning that she has lexicalized skirmish in error as "squirmish"?  I doubt it. A more likely theory, I think, is that this is a speech error of the type know as perseveration: the repetition of an onset segment from an earlier word in a later one.

She offer three possible terms, "war", "intervention", "skirmish". And as evidence that the initial /w/ of "war" has not been adequately inhibited, note that she starts to insert /w/ into the onset of "use". In that case, she catches herself and suppresses it quickly, perhaps because neither /yw/ nor /wy/ is a possible English syllable-beginning. But it immediately pops up again in the onset of "skirmish", slotted into the syllable-initial consonant sequence in the only place English phonotactics allow it to go.

Here's the critical sequence, at normal speed and then slowed down by a third:

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Update — Roger C points out in a comment below that in LBJ's 1964 State of the Union address, the president said (at about 11:19 of the speech)

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Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outsquirts of hope.

Here again, it seems unlikely that LBJ either meant this as a witty coinage, or had genuinely mis-lexicalized outskirts as "outsquirts". (Though there are a few jokey cases of "outsquirts" as an eggcorn for outskirts, e.g. here.) And in LBJ's 1964 performance, there's no obvious disfluency, nor is there any priming of an onset /w/ in the previous sentences. It's conceivable that the labial constriction for the offglide of "out" is held through the onset of "skirt", though as far as I know this is not a common kind of speech error.

However, this passage occurs just before a subordinate climax introducing the "War on Poverty":

Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope — some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.

This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.

It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it. One thousand dollars invested in salvaging an unemployable youth today can return $40,000 or more in his lifetime.

So it's possible that "war" was primed for LBJ, just as it was for Sarah Palin, and imposed its initital labiovelar on an available /sk/ onset.

One odd thing — there are zero Google hits at present for "outsquirts of hope".  Either this is because no one cared to make anything of LBJ's slip, back in those less partisan days, or because without the internet, the jokes and jibes were evanescent.


  1. Maggie said,

    March 29, 2011 @ 7:03 pm

    When I just saw "squirmish" out of context, I assumed she'd used it as a cross between squirm and squeamish, rather than squirm and skirmish. I think I like it better the way I originally read it (especially since it's how I feel about violence in general!).

  2. Allison said,

    March 29, 2011 @ 7:23 pm

    I kind of appreciate the injection of twee in national political discourse.

  3. Peter said,

    March 29, 2011 @ 9:48 pm

    OK, I know this is Language Log not US Party Politics Log. But it’s hard to watch this video without being struck by the clarity and articulacy of some of its main points — things like,

    a) It’s a terrible thing for the president to go along with the UN, NATO, the Arab league, and so on, in Libya, not realising that US interests must come first in this affair.

    b) The president’s speech was nuanced. And if you find yourself being nuanced in times of war, that’s a really really bad sign.

    c) The one good thing in Obama’s speech was that he mentioned the North Star, which is of great symbolic significance to Alaskans. This gives hope that maybe he does know what he’s doing with foreign policy, after all.

    I know, right?

  4. D.O. said,

    March 30, 2011 @ 12:12 am

    Not actually on the point, but have you noticed that Ms. Palin structures her argument in linguistic terms. Strictly speaking, she complains that it is not clear how to call what the US is doing in Libya, not that it is not clear what it is that US is doing. This, of course, is not a mistake of any kind, just a rhetorical figure.

  5. ShadowFox said,

    March 30, 2011 @ 12:19 am

    I played the video several times and where she's saying "our plumb line" I hear more of a "our plum wine" (@1:21). This made me wonder if her "w-" false-start is not actually a false-start–it's stuck between "we" and "use". If that's the case, she didn't actually "catch herself" in trying to start "skirmish" with a "w", but instead she just has a kind of "woo" quality to her speech that led her to try to say "wuse" first, then add "w" to "skirmish".

  6. D.O. said,

    March 30, 2011 @ 3:01 am

    I also has noticed that there are a lot of words starting with /w/. For less than 60 words, 10 begin with /w/ (9 if you count before 'squirmish'). Is there such a thing as accumulated perseveration?

  7. Jason said,

    March 30, 2011 @ 3:08 am

    The ever-unreliable Urban Dictionary claims squirmish means:

    "A verbal stoush between two or more parties that is so petty, pointless, misinformed or ill-conceived that it makes witnesses wince with embarrassment, or so uncomfortable that they don't know where to look.
    Did you hear those two going off at each other across the table? I just don't want to get involved in these squirmishes."

    Since Language Log likes to bend over backwards to give Ms Malaprop a charitable interpretation whenever she does this sort of thing, I thought I'd put it out there as a possible refudiation of the charge of ignorance in addition to the phonetic one, also.

  8. J Lee said,

    March 30, 2011 @ 3:26 am

    clearly she had formulated the statement beforehand, offering two suggestions, but was anticipating the rhetorical question 'what is it?.'
    however, skirmish still doesnt strike me as appropriate, and since it is a classic case of a word that people learn from its use in context rather than a definition — that context being a minor military engagement as compared to the bigger war with which it is associated — it still could qualify as a malapropism. the dictionary supports the impressions i have, not a concerted multinational humanitarian effort. if anyone can provide a counterexample i might retract.

  9. Nathan Myers said,

    March 30, 2011 @ 5:00 am

    I suppose this means she really said "sqwirmish". She might try to claim it's an Iñupiaq word.

  10. GeorgeW said,

    March 30, 2011 @ 5:01 am

    J. Lee: What to call it? Definitely not skirmish (at least, in my lexicon). 'skirmish' is too limited and could occur within a war (but not vice versa).

    Obama is avoiding the 'W' word for political, and possibly legal, reasons. But, that (in my lexicon) would not be appropriate as this action is too limited in objectives, scope and resources.

    'Intervention' alone is insufficient as this could be political, economic, social, etc. 'Intervention' needs a qualifier such as 'military.'

  11. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 30, 2011 @ 5:29 am

    The UK's naval and military intervention to recapture the Falkland Islands from Argentina was consistently and somewhat oddly not called a "war" by the British government at the time. I vaguely remember hearing this explained then as due to an effort to avoid legal consequences such as needing to treat Argentine citizens in the UK as enemy aliens. Certainly it was hard to see how avoiding the word "war" would have had any political benefits (the war was popular in the UK, and indeed may well have rescued Margaret Thatcher's government.)

  12. Marc Naimark said,

    March 30, 2011 @ 5:51 am

    Maybe use whatever term was used for Grenada…

  13. Rodger C said,

    March 30, 2011 @ 7:15 am

    In Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty speech, he distinctly said, "Today many Americans live on the outsquirts of hope."

    [(myl) Indeed he does. See (and hear) in an Update to the body of the post.]

  14. GeorgeW said,

    March 30, 2011 @ 7:30 am

    The terms are also subjective in that the U.S. can engage in an 'intervention,' while Libyans or Grenadians can experience it as 'war.'

  15. Tamara said,

    March 30, 2011 @ 9:12 am

    Can I just tell you how much I love "squirmish" (in the Urban Dictionary sense) and "outsquirts of hope"? You have made my morning! I am going to start using both of them as soon as someone wakes up who I can talk to.

  16. B.Ma said,

    March 30, 2011 @ 10:58 am

    Are /yw/ or /wy/ possible syllable-beginnings in any language?

  17. Neil Dolinger said,

    March 30, 2011 @ 11:39 am

    @ B.Ma, "Are /yw/ or /wy/ possible syllable-beginnings in any language?"

    /yw/ is an allowable syllable initial in Mandarin, e.g. "yuan", "yue".

  18. Fred said,

    March 30, 2011 @ 1:28 pm


  19. Chandra said,

    March 30, 2011 @ 1:53 pm

    @Fred – The y in "Wyoming" is making a long-i sound, not the sound of y as in "yes".

    @Tamara – I too have been rendered unreasonably jubilant by the existence of the phrase "outsquirts of hope".

  20. John Cowan said,

    March 30, 2011 @ 2:00 pm

    "yw" here means IPA [jw]. Chinese "yu" followed by a vowel is IPA [ɥ]. As far as I know, [jw] doesn't appear initially in any language, but it wouldn't astonish me to find it somewhere.

  21. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 30, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

    Lots of WY-initial words in the Welsh dictionary.

  22. LDavidH said,

    March 30, 2011 @ 2:41 pm

    @Dan Lufkin: Yes, but in Welsh, one of the two is always a vowel. (Welsh w is often pronounced like English oo.)

  23. Rod Johnson said,

    March 30, 2011 @ 2:57 pm

    /yw/ is allowable in Burmese too–for example /ywa:/ means 'village' as a noun and "fall" as a verb (in the collocation /mou: ywa:de/ 'rain fall').

  24. Walter Underwood said,

    March 30, 2011 @ 5:45 pm


  25. Huey said,

    March 30, 2011 @ 11:52 pm

    An intermediate form between "you all" and "y'all" has /yw/. A slurred "we all" ("we are", etc.) has /wy/. There should be more triphthongs in English.

  26. Russell Cross said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 8:43 am

    Methinks it is yet another entry in the as yet unpublished "Palin Dictionary of the semi-English Language." Mark my words, someone is working even as I type on producing this critical reinterpretation of the Mother Tongue as used by the Mother Hen. I should, in all fairness, admit that I really DO like the word "squirmish" and suspect it is already a front runner for the 2011 "Word of the Year."

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