Severely X

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Mitt Romney has gotten a certain amount of flak for this phrase in his recent speech at CPAC (alternative video here; prepared text here):

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My- my state was a leading indicator of what liberals will be trying to do across the country and are trying to do right now. And I fought against against long odds in a deep blue state, but I was a severely conservative Republican governor.

Thus Erick Erickson at complained:

What the heck is a severe conservative? The man who likes to fire people should probably fire Miriam-Webster, in addition to whoever came up with his strategy for Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado.

A severe conservative? It sounds more like a critique of conservatives from the left than that of a conservative himself

And Molly Ball at the Atlantic focused on the adverbial form, explaining:

Mitt Romney's much-hyped task at the Conservative Political Action Conference: convince this exotic tribe that he was one of them. And so, in his 26-minute speech Friday, the word "conservative" appeared 24 times.

But when Romney went off script, with a single adverb, he described conservatism as if it were a disease.

"I was a severely conservative governor," he said of his time as chief executive of Massachusetts.

According to Politico,

“I have never heard anybody say, ‘I’m severely conservative,’” Rush Limbaugh noted on his show.

“That didn’t get a lot of applause,” firebrand Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) observed with a tight smile.

“Some things are too funny to comment on,” a laughing Newt Gingrich commented as he walked into the conference to give his own speech.

A quick check of severely's collocates validates Molly Ball's reaction. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, severely precedes a modifier 1213 times, and more than 98% of the time, the following word is something generally regarded as regrettable if not downright bad. The top 100, in descending order of frequency:

disabled, depressed, ill, limited, injured, retarded, impaired, malnourished, obese, overweight, handicapped, autistic, restricted, divided, disruptive, disturbed, underwieght, allergic, wounded, deformed, overcrowded, brain-damaged, limiting, disappointed, underrepresented, understaffed, critical, abnormal, depleted, flawed, troubled, underfunded, polluted, sprained, disadvantaged, asthmatic, cold, compromised, broken, disoriented, negative, repressed, short, underdeveloped, violent, damaging, debilitating, bruised, disordered, dependent, distressed, dyslexic, eroded, inadequate, infected, demented, degraded, deficient, congested, cropped, anorexic, afflicted, downhill, dysfunctional, embarrassed, fractured, fragmented, hurt, malformed, mutilated, nearsighted, painful, premature, repressive, strained, stricken, undulating, weak, acidic, anxious, bleeding, bipolar, biased, alone, crowded, constricted, dangerous, defective, decayed, delinquent, disciplined, deprived, face-lifted, hearing-impaired

A few other examples involve modifiers that are problematic in the context of use, though they might be a good thing in other cases: severely elevated cholesterol levels or extinction rates; severely high blood pressure; severely active uveitis, etc.

5 instances are a sort of joke, involving references to "severely gifted" children.

And 7 involved the sense of severe that means something like "austere" or "restrained": severely classical,  severely handsome.

It would be hard to find any other intensifier so reliably associated with qualities that are negatively evaluated.

Update — Since there's been some discussion in the comments about the relationship between the Xs in "severely X" and the Ys in "severe Y", here are the top 100 nominal collocates of severe:

weather, pain, cases, disabilities, depression, problems, damage, drought, storms, case, brain, punishment, form, blow, headaches, symptoms, restrictions, consequences, recession, problem, injuries, asthma, illness, penalties, shortage, health, burns, head, winter, disease, forms, headache, limitations, conditions, thunderstorms, criticism, budget, injury, side, stress, shortages, storm, hearing, sanctions, disability, discrepancy, heart, impact, learning, water, complications, malnutrition, anxiety, reactions, trauma, flooding, food, limits, diarrhea, pressure, cuts, dehydration, stomach, infection, threat, chest, arthritis, penalty, thunderstorm, malaria, beating, behavior, disadvantage, reaction, back, concussion, hardship, impairment, muscle, test, crisis, decline, handicaps, liver, strains, difficulties, lack, allergies, droughts, loss, acne, difficulty, downturn, effects, mood, attack, erosion, memory, price, repression

And of course, the collocates that are positive or neutral generally turn sour in following positions. Thus "severe head" tends to be followed by injuries, trauma, wounds, or pain, not by scarves, nurse, or room;  "severe mood" tends to be followed by swings, disturbances, or disorders, not by improvements or music.


  1. F said,

    February 11, 2012 @ 11:33 am

    It's a bizarre turn of phrase, but I initially interpreted it in the "austere, restrained" sense — a severe conservatism as opposed to, say, a compassionate one? Or something like that.

    [(myl) Of course that's what he meant. But the resulting jokes are just too easy…]

  2. Roy Wright said,

    February 11, 2012 @ 11:43 am

    My impression was that he meant something like a cross between "extremely" and "seriously."

  3. The Ridger said,

    February 11, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

    Sure, we all know what he meant. But when you repurpose a modifier, you set yourself up, either for jokes or headshakes. Collocation is a strong, strong force – I find myself trying to explain this to students of translation all the time. "Yes, Russian uses 'deeply' to modify old. English doesn't. It sounds weird."

    I sincerely doubt Romney wished to sound weird.

  4. Dick Margulis said,

    February 11, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

    Murder will out. Perhaps he doesn't wish to sound weird; but as he is severely weird, maybe his sounding so, inadvertently, was inevitable.

  5. Bobbie said,

    February 11, 2012 @ 12:26 pm

    Really?? Am I the only one who noticed Erik Erikson's misspelling of Miriam-Webster? (She is a very nice woman, that Miriam!)

  6. Ellen K. said,

    February 11, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

    I find it odd that Erik Erikson jumped from Romney's statement "…but I was a severely conservative Republican governor." to "A severe conservative?". To me, Romney's statement does not at all suggest there's a such thing as a severe conservative, or if there is, that he is or was one. I agree with Roy Wright.

    Just like "a really conservative [noun]" doesn't translate to "a real conservative", I don't think we can conclude he's claiming to have been a severe conservative.

  7. rootlesscosmo said,

    February 11, 2012 @ 1:02 pm

    In "Alien 4" a male character refers to Winona Ryder's character as "severely fuckable," meaning (from the context) hot.

  8. Spell Me Jeff said,

    February 11, 2012 @ 1:17 pm

    Wouldn't "severely fuckable" be one of those ironic usages?

  9. chh said,

    February 11, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

    Ellen K., I think there are two problems with that analogy: one is the different senses of 'real' as an adjective and 'really' as an adverb, and the other is that you're treating 'severe' in 'severe conservative' as an intersective modifier.

    'Really' in your example means something like 'very', while 'real' means something like 'genuine'. I don't think there's such a mismatch between 'severe' and 'severely'.

    The interesting thing about 'severe conservative' is that 'severe' probably isn't acting as an intersective modifier- the adjective is saying something about Romney's conservatism, not Romney himself, like 'former' in 'former governor' or 'frequent' in 'frequent visitor'. In that case, I think 'severe conservative' and 'severely conservative' describe the same thing. Does that seem right?

    I think since 'severe', unlike 'former', is often used as an intersective adjective ('a severe flaw/storm/headache', etc.), it's possible to interpret it that way here, but I doubt that was the author's intention- If it was I would have the same reaction you're having!

  10. chh said,

    February 11, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

    Sorry, Ellen K.- I reread your post and it seems like you're really talking about the fact that not all people that are described as conservative Xs are necessarily "conservatives". I don't have a really solid idea of what it means to be a conservative, so I missed that point. I think I see what you mean now.

  11. GeorgeW said,

    February 11, 2012 @ 1:42 pm

    A severe conservative is a (Massachusetts) moderate? (One requiring arduous effort).

  12. JMM said,

    February 11, 2012 @ 3:09 pm

    The weeks Republican frontrunner (the last reactionary standing?) made a more egregious language error (IMHO); the confusion was beyond just modifying an absolute.
    But I'll give even people I disagree with an occasional pass when they must give this many speeches and interviews a week.

  13. J Lee said,

    February 11, 2012 @ 3:34 pm

    given his point about his state i'm inclined to think he wanted to convey 'staunch conservative', a common collocation, and somehow settled on 'severe'

  14. John said,

    February 11, 2012 @ 4:17 pm


    well, both you and myl misspelled Erick Erickson. Muphry?

    [(myl) Perhaps, though I didn't complain about Miriam, so in my case it was just a random careless error.]

  15. Dakota said,

    February 11, 2012 @ 4:45 pm

    Not the first time the sincerity of Mittens' conservatism has been questioned, and it won't be the last. His script writers are probably congratulating themselves, since successful presidential candidates usually run from the center.

  16. Dave said,

    February 11, 2012 @ 5:53 pm

    In my idiolect (31, AmE), "severely" is fine with a positive modifier, but the result is decidedly informal: "severely awesome", "severely badass", etc. This just seems like the usual bad-becomes-good sort of phenomenon (eg "terribly"). It might be limited enough not to show up in COCA.

    I suppose it's not terribly likely that Romney has this use, but he might.

  17. Rubrick said,

    February 11, 2012 @ 6:33 pm

    I think my perception of "severe" is influenced by my reading lots of commentary on the game of go, where a "severe move" is a good, sharp move which demands a response.

  18. Ellen K. said,

    February 11, 2012 @ 7:44 pm

    @cch: I'm puzzled by both your points. My point is, just like "really" has a meaning that doesn't relate any meaning of "real", same, I think, with "severely" in "severely conservative republican". I read that as meaning to a strong degree; characteristics one might call "severe" not required. Furthermore "a severe conservative" sounds like one who is stern and serious, which to me doesn't at all seem to be what's meant bo "a severely conservative republican".

  19. Kenny said,

    February 11, 2012 @ 10:13 pm

    I'm with Ellen K. I'm not sure when combinations of [adverb] [adjective] can be shifted into [adjective] [noun] and mean the same thing (my guess is that it's almost never or never), but in this case the phrase "severely conservative" and "severe conservative" have widely divergent implications. I was surprised it wasn't mentioned in myl's post, though I suppose it wasn't central to the general point that Romney chose or use an unusual phrasing that is all to easy to associate with negative interpretations.

  20. jf said,

    February 12, 2012 @ 9:03 am

    A severe conservative, a severe liberal and a severe moderate walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says, "Oh. Hi, Mitt."

    Other than repeating this joke, I just like thinking about what would constitute a "severe moderate."

  21. mgh said,

    February 12, 2012 @ 10:22 am

    how about "severely talented"? google finds quite a few non-ironic examples

  22. Dakota said,

    February 12, 2012 @ 10:51 am

    Urban Dictionary reports a few examples meaning "cool":

  23. Mary Apodaca said,

    February 12, 2012 @ 10:53 am

    I was surprised comments were open. Perhaps you should start warning us when they will be accepted. [joke]

  24. EmmaLee said,

    February 12, 2012 @ 10:56 am

    Everybody here is an English teacher, I take it. Only we would find this a matter of such severe debate. JF – LOVE that joke. I'm stealing it.

  25. linda seebach said,

    February 12, 2012 @ 11:40 am

    My son's elementary school had him tested and the school psychologist reported back to us that he was "severely gifted." I thought he meant "gifted enough to be a problem for us" and that would match up Romney talking about Massachusetts being a state that wouldn't want to deal wuth a conservative governor.

  26. Jim Harrison said,

    February 12, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

    Mitt is trying to connect with Conservatives, angry people who always want to punish somebody. "Severely conservative" is simply a clumsy dog whistle*. The better way to manage the association of ideas would be to speak of highly moral conservatism since, when predicated of intentions, "moral" usually means motivated by hatred. Or MItt could have at least talked about his severe morality since that's a more normal collocation.

    *In view of who he was speaking to and the fact that his first name is Willard, perhaps one should speak of a rat whistle here.

  27. Kylopod said,

    February 12, 2012 @ 2:53 pm

    >JF – LOVE that joke.

    The joke actually comes from a CPAC speech itself (but without the word "severely"), by a Santorum backer:

  28. chh said,

    February 12, 2012 @ 2:55 pm

    @ EllenK

    Yes- you're still getting some kind of intersective reading for 'severe', which is to be expected, but as I said I'm sure that wasn't the author's intention.

    Can you call someone who procrastinates a lot a 'severe procrastinator'? I can, and similarly 'severe conservative' makes perfect sense to me. For you can a severe procrastinator only be a person who is extremely strict but also procrastinates?

  29. Ellen K. said,

    February 12, 2012 @ 3:11 pm

    @CCH: I don't want to drag out this conversation further, but I do want to note, strictness has nothing to do with anything, and I can't even see where you got that.

  30. H Klang said,

    February 12, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

    >In my idiolect (31, AmE), "severely" is fine with a positive modifier, but the result is decidedly informal: "severely awesome", "severely badass", etc. This just seems like the usual bad-becomes-good sort of phenomenon (eg "terribly"). It might be limited enough not to show up in COCA.

    I agree with this. To my ear, it is not a mistake. It is a colloquial, cool, post-valley, post-SB surfer, gen x or gen y new usage, where "severely" is used lightly and ironically to mean "extremely" in a positive, but awed sense. Like "awesome" or "totally" a bit earlier in time, but with more dig. It would be interesting to see this documented.

  31. chh said,

    February 12, 2012 @ 4:55 pm

    ok- replace 'strict' with 'stern' or 'serious', as that's all I meant.

    I hope it's clear that my point is that the adjective 'severe' can combine with words like 'conservative' and 'procrastinator' to modify something other than the individual the noun refers to. I understand that to you it sounds like 'severe' is saying something about the individual, but I'm trying to make the point that this is not necessarily the case, and the fact that a non-intersective reading is available explains why neither the author nor most readers find the connection between 'severely conservative' and 'severe conservative' to be unusual.

    I thought the 'severe procrastinator' example would be pretty convincing :) I dunno…

  32. Bill Walderman said,

    February 12, 2012 @ 10:38 pm

    Paul Krugman seems to have noticed this post:

  33. Mike said,

    February 12, 2012 @ 11:03 pm

    As contrasted with: chronically conservative?

    … which might be what he'd rather mean, i.e. long lastingly conservative, rather than severely as in acutely, as in he just came down with a strong case of conservativism last week.

  34. Nathan said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 9:54 am

    @jf: I doubt Mitt's ever walked into a bar.

  35. Richard Hershberger said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 11:13 am

    What strikes me is the suggestion from the Redstate poster that Romney should fire "Miriam-Webster". Even apart from the misspelling, what exactly was the firing offense? The best I can come up with is that MW's entry fails to discuss the connotation of "severely" which gives rise to this discussion. This is unsurprising to anyone who understands how dictionaries actually work. Even apart from that, the objection would seem to be that MW is insufficiently descriptive. The usual conservative complaint about MW is just the opposite: that it is too descriptive of actual usage, as distinguished from the critic's preferred usage.

    I wonder if Erickson has some inchoate sense that as a good conservative he is supposed to harrumph disapprovingly at Merriam Webster, but doesn't quite understand why.

  36. E W Gilman said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 12:56 pm

    I see old Aunt Miriam Webster has made another appearance.

  37. Boris said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 1:19 pm

    Is anyone else here reminded of "catastrophic success"?

  38. Ted said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 2:44 pm

    @Hershberger: I think it's just a playful reminder that Mitt likes to fire people who serve him poorly. Mitt was poorly served by his dictionary, therefore Mitt should fire it. Merriam-Webster has no particular significance other than as a recognizable name for a dictionary, Funk & Wagnalls being more salient to the Laugh-In generation. I doubt very much that Erickson has any view whatever on the substantive merits of Merriam-Webster as compared to any other dictionary, given explain his confusion about the actual name of the publication in question.

  39. Ted said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 2:47 pm

    (Note that the phase "given explain," above, represents my failure to choose between "given" and "and this would explain," not an attempt to create a new grammatical construction of questionable utility.)

  40. Ted said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 2:47 pm

    *phrase. I should quit while I'm behind.

  41. jf said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 5:41 pm

    @Nathan: You made me look, but you're wrong:

  42. [links] Link salad wakes up in the city by the bay | said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 1:53 pm

    […] Severely X — Language Log on Mitt Romney's comment on being "severely conservative." Heh. […]

  43. Will said,

    March 3, 2013 @ 9:09 am

    Just watching kung fu panda 2:
    "That is severely cool"
    (Po in response to Tigress' tale of how she spent 20 years punching ironwood masts)

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