Severely viral

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Yesterday, Paul Krugman picked up on our "Severely X" post ('Severe Conservative Syndrome", NYT, 2/12/2012):

Mitt Romney has a gift for words — self-destructive words. On Friday he did it again, telling the Conservative Political Action Conference that he was a “severely conservative governor.”

As Molly Ball of The Atlantic pointed out, Mr. Romney “described conservatism as if it were a disease.” Indeed. Mark Liberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, provided a list of words that most commonly follow the adverb “severely”; the top five, in frequency of use, are disabled, depressed, ill, limited and injured.

That’s clearly not what Mr. Romney meant to convey. Yet if you look at the race for the G.O.P. presidential nomination, you have to wonder whether it was a Freudian slip. For something has clearly gone very wrong with modern American conservatism.

And today, perhaps in response, Ryan Lizza at the New Yorker enlisted Google Books, or maybe, in defense of Gov. Romney ("The Lizza List: A 'severely conservative' lexicon", 2/13/2012):

Last Friday, Mitt Romney caused a stir in Republican circles when he went before the Conservative Political Action Conference and declared himself “severely conservative” as governor of Massachusetts. Many were puzzled by the phrase, noting that the adverb “severely” was not commonly used as modifier signifying admiration and respect. Rush Limbaugh was especially confused. He played the clip on his radio show and then said, “I have never heard anybody say, ‘I’m severely conservative.’ ”

But the term has in fact been used many times in the past.

Lizza cites "nine things described [in print] as 'severely conservative'": Reformed alcoholics and criminalsA province in Afghanistan where mannequins are veiledVegetarianism’s moral basisJohn Lennon’s Aunt MimiAn Islamic legal schoolThe response from investors when earnings growth is poorThe 2004 budget of GhanaTeachers who hit children; and The proper kind of jewelry to be worn at a Mormon wedding.

But in fact, he might have gone on at much greater length. A Google Books search for "severely conservative" claims more than a thousand hits, starting chronologically with The Journal of Sacred Literature in 1854:

The other works at the head of our article will require, as being far more careful and original, a more detailed and respectful examination. This even the names of their authors will at once secure. Dr. Wardlaw may be regarded as a champion of a severely conservative orthodoxy; Mr. Trench as an expounder and representation of the Evangelical divines of Germany.

The most recent citation is a footnote in John Sabonmatsu's 2011 Critical Theory and Animal Liberation:

As Fox rightly points out, "The principle of nonmaleficence (avoiding or minimizing harm) certainly seems to be about as basic a moral precept as can be imagined" (Deep Vegetarianism, 87), and it is for this reaon that rachels suggests that "vegetarianism might be though of as a severely conservative moral stance," following as it does from "the rule against causing unnecessary pain," which "is the least eccentric of all moral principles" (Created from Animals, 1990).

However, we have to put these thousand (claimed) examples in perspective. A comparable search for "severely limited" claims 1,290,000 hits, more than a thousand times more.

As usual with Google search counts, these claims must be taken with several grains of salt — rather than an exact count, they're a statistical estimate extrapolated from somewhat limited evidence. So we can turn to the Google Books Ngram corpus, where it's possible to make an exhaustive count. There we find 146 hits for "severely conservative", compared to 77,132 (528 times more) for "severely limited".

Still and all, severely and conservative do clearly have a certain amount of mutual affinity. In contrast, "severely liberal" turns up nothing at all in the Google Ngram corpus. Google Books claims 9 hits, but 6 of these are completely spurious, e.g.

The total number of deaths caused by the epidemic was nearly fourteen thousand, New Orleans and Memphis suffering most severely. Liberal money contributions and other assistances were received from all parts of the country …

One is marginal:

Third, a portion of students are sensitive about the problem of corruption, and a few severely liberal-thinking instructors have taken advantage of the opportunity to agitate the students. [Inside China Mainland 18, 1996]

The remaining two are interesting — both appear to use the word "liberal" in the classical sense — and the second appears to be some kind of approximate re-publication or perhaps plagiarism of the first:

They are severely liberal. Above all, they are dedicated to a preservation of civil rights and liberties and to the creation of an economic environment which will allow the individual to realize his full potentialities. [Dudley Dillard, The economics of John Maynard Keynes, 1948]

But changes recommended are severely liberal ; they are for total preservation of civil rights and liberties and to the creation of an economic environment which will facilitate individual to attain his full potentialities. [The Economic Studies, Volume 24, 1983]

Like Romney's "strictly conservative governor", these uses of severely imply something like strict restraint in a context where such stern discipline may be viewed (at least by some) as a Good Thing. And given this interpretation, it's not unexpected to find something like 500 times more uses of "severely conservative" than "severely liberal".

But as I observed in my earlier post, the overwhelming majority of Xs in severely X phrases are "generally regarded as regrettable if not downright bad". This negative connotation is not shared by (for example) strictly — the top adjectives in COCA's strictly [jj] list are a mostly neutral to positive lot: confidential, true, military, necessary, legal, liable, political, voluntary, enforced, professional, …

Latin severus seems to have been less consistently negative than English severe now is. Thus Cicero [Man. 13.38] uses it in a way that suggests the English translation strict rather than severe:

neque enim potest exercitum is continere imperator qui se ipse non continet, neque severus esse in iudicando qui alios in se severos esse iudices non volt

For that general who does not restrain himself can never restrain his army; nor can he be strict in judging others who is unwilling for others to be strict in judging him [Tr. by C.D. Yonge, 1856]

Still, severus is not always a good quality. A substantial fraction of the examples cited in the Lewis & Short entry strike me as negatively evaluated. Thus Horace (C. 1.27):

voltis severi me quoque sumere
partem Falerni?

Do you want me also to take a drink of severus Falernian [wine]?

Lewis & Short suggest "rough, sharp, tart" to translate this example; John Conington's 1882 English translation uses "fierce".  "Severe" is not prominent in the contemporary winetalk lexicon — a web search for pages with the words severe and wine instead turns up references to the bad viticultural effects of severe frost, severe flooding, severe winter, severe drought, severe hailstorms; the possibility of severe damage in pregnancy, severe reactions to sulfite, severe headaches, etc. If we insist that severe modify wine we do get a few things like

An austere or severe wine is too harsh, that is, too tannic or possibly too acidic.

So neither Horace nor modern writers seem generally to view severe wine as good.

Update — Rick Santorum's campaign has entered the severely sweepstakes with a fundraising email:

At yesterday’s CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney tried hard to convince the conservative audience that he also was a conservative. Romney even described himself as being “severely conservative.” A quick look at Romney’s record reveals he is severely mistaken.


  1. Bill Walderman said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 9:34 pm

    Nisbet & Hubbard, A Commentary on Horace Odes, Book I, suggest that seuerus in Odes I.27.9 means simply "dry" as opposed to sweet. The epithet seems to be ornamental, and the text seems to suggest that dry Falernian wine is enjoyable.

    A famous instance of Seuerus in a negative sense–Catullus 5.1-3:

    Viuamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
    rumoresque senum seueriorum
    omnes unius aestimemus assis.

    Let's live, my Lesbia, and let's love, and let's treat all the grumbling of severe old men as worth one penny.

  2. Bill Walderman said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 9:39 pm

    Maybe "puritanical" would be a more apt translation of "seueriorum".

  3. Kylopod said,

    February 14, 2012 @ 12:03 am

    I thought most if not all of Lizza's examples weren't proving his point at all. To say that a recovering alcoholic "had flipped to the opposite extreme, to severely conservative behavior" isn't exactly putting her behavior in glowing terms. Indeed, at the end of this passage it says "She was full of self-hatred and was operating out of fear."

    I do think the reaction to Romney's remark reflected the fact that it reinforced feelings people already had about him, rather than creating those feelings in the first place. If Sarah Palin had said something like this, you'd probably have liberals sneering at the awkward phrasing and conservatives defending it. I can just imagine Palin fans deciding to adopt the adverb "severely" as a point of pride and using it whenever they can. ("Sarah gave such a severely awesome speech that echoed the severely great president Ronald Reagan, which shows she has a severely love of this country….")

  4. D.O. said,

    February 14, 2012 @ 2:02 am

    So, if I get it right, Mr. Romney used severely conservative disregarding that severaly X usually go with negative X. Nonetheless severely conservative is in low frequency, but constant use. Moreover, when it is used, conservative is not a bad word for the speaker. All in all Mr. Romney said something not wrong, but linguistically interesting. That is not acceptebale. Americans require from their presidential candidates be as bland as possible.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 14, 2012 @ 2:05 am

    I suggest the Santorum campaign try to get a statement from Yoko Ono that Gov. Romney is not nearly as severely conservative as was her late husband's Aunt Mimi. (Mimi alas appears ineligible for the Presidency on, at a minimum, "birther" grounds.)

  6. Jon Weinberg said,

    February 14, 2012 @ 8:30 am

    And alas, although she would likely be a better president than some of the aspirants to that position, section one of the twenty-fifth amendment pretty clearly requires that the president be alive.

  7. Mr Punch said,

    February 14, 2012 @ 3:28 pm

    One of Lizza's examples occurs in a specifically Mormon context – is this perhaps a case of Romney falling back on a familiar phrase?

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 14, 2012 @ 5:19 pm

    It seems to me that in the two (or 1.5) relevant hits on "severely liberal", "liberal" may mean something we Americans would call "conservative" or "libertarian".

    [(myl) As I said, liberal in the classical sense:

    1762    D. Hume Hist. Eng. I. ii. 65   Alfred took care to temper these rigors by other institutions favourable to the freedom and security of the citizens; and nothing could be more popular and liberal than his plan for the administration of justice.

    1776    A. Smith Inq. Wealth of Nations II. iv. v. 125   Were all nations to follow the liberal system of free exportation and free importation, the different states into which a great continent was divided would so far resemble the different provinces of a great empire.


  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 14, 2012 @ 7:26 pm

    @MYL: Okay, I wasn't sure which sense you meant by "classical", but I should have realized it was the sense that quotation exemplified.

  10. Gosse Bouma said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 8:44 am

    The BNC has 9 occurrences (given below) of 'severly practical' (COCA only 1), an expression that seems to lack the negative or even 'austere, restricted' connotation discussed here . Or do I miss something? (Google Books even gives 51K estimated hits. )

    [(myl) There's one instance of "severely practical" in the 425 million words of the COCA corpus — I only listed the 100 most frequent collocates in COCA. And in that single example, "severely practical" is one of those cases where a positive or neutral word takes on a connotation shaded towards the negative:

    "Erotic love, a demanding ideal in its own right, had no attraction for him. His attitude toward the body was severely practical."

    It's interesting that practical is so much more common in this context in the BNC — perhaps the "restrained" or "limited" sense of severe remains stronger in Britain — but the rest of adjectival collocates of severely in the BNC support the point that I originally made, namely that qualities modified by severely are in general at least regrettable and sometimes downright bad. The top twenty adjectival collocates of severely in the BNC:

    disabled, disadvantaged, ill, handicapped, depressed, practical, limited, critical, demented, undernourished, defective, embarrassed, injured, restricted, retarded, malnourished, negative, impaired, disturbed, deficient

    1 A44 37 The southern African states have the right of the argument for two reasons, both severely practical.
    2 A7W 378 ‘Sovereignty, rather, is in today's world a severely practical concept … the ability to have the maximum possible say in determining one's own future, in circumstances that actually exist.’
    3 AE4 416 To be a woman ruler of course posed problems, severely practical ones.
    4 ANR 769 Les Halles had not, however, been built to add to the city's entertainments; they had a severely practical purpose in which light, air, and water for cleanliness were the key elements, plus, of course, ease of access.
    5 CN2 645 The ICAO secretariat soon established a number of bureaux to cover various aspects of civil aviation such as financial, legal, commercial and other matters, but one severely practical part of the secretariat was the Air Navigation Bureau.
    6 EVC 343 He took a long breath, becoming severely practical before he got out of his depth.
    7 FEE 3273 Addy always had a severely practical streak.
    8 FES 870 His approach had become a severely practical one.
    9 H8C 561 Pombal and Tanucci were therefore severely practical and utilitarian in their attitude to the problems of government.

  11. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 10:48 pm

    I'm surprised that "Trimegistus" hasn't commented on this. Perhaps he doesn't consider Romney severely-Conservative enough to justify accusing you of bias?

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