Bumps in the road

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Jake Tapper, "Republicans Jump on President Referring to ‘Bumps in the Road’ in Muslim World", ABC News 9/23/2012:

“I guess when u win a Nobel Peace Prize for doing nothing,” tweeted former Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, “an attack that kills an Ambassador is just a ‘bump in the road.’”

Other Republicans and conservatives, including officials from the Romney campaign, similarly criticized the president.

Fleischer was referring to this exchange on CBS’ “60 Minutes” this evening:

STEVE KROFT: “Have the events that took place in the Middle East, the recent events in the Middle East given you any pause about your support for the governments that have come to power following the Arab Spring?”

PRESIDENT OBAMA: “Well, I’d said even at the time that this is going to be a rocky path. the question presumes that somehow we could have stopped this wave of change. I think it was absolutely the right thing for us to do to align ourselves with democracy, universal rights — a notion that — people have — to be able to — participate — in — their own governance. But I was pretty certain and continue to be pretty certain that there are going to be bumps in the road because — you know, in a lot of these places — the one organizing principle — has been Islam.

The earliest example that I've been able to find of a metaphorical usage of "bumps in the road" comes from a story in the Chicago Daily Tribune for 9/29/1928, "Cubs win, 7-5; Giants can only tie Cards now":

Guy Bush, once an efficient Giant killer, came back to show that some of his skill remained. He got away with it, but not because of any spectacular hurling. Round after round he hurdled the bumps in the road because of sensational support by a team that lost three regulars during the course of battle.

In the Google Books ngram collection, the relative frequency of "bumps in the road" begins to rise steeply in the early 1990s:

Perhaps as a result, the Golden Age of foreign-policy road bumps, both diplomatic and violent, seems to have been the first term of George W. Bush. During Ari Fleischer's tenure as White House press secretary, we find e.g. "Dr. Condoleezza Rice Discusses the Roadmap for Peace in the Middle East", 6/3/2003:

Clearly, this is a difficult process and it's going to be a long process and there will be bumps in the road, we understand that.

And "Speech by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III", National Press Club, 7/23/2003, discussing events in Iraq:

But we need to be realistic. There will be bumps in the  road. Total security is not possible. Continued success on our  overall reconstruction plan will probably be met by bitter-enders who target our successes.

If you look at some of the most disruptive and symbolic  attacks in recent weeks, it turns out that what they do is  attack our success stories.

Mr. Bremer seems to have been rather fond of this phrase, and had quite a few opportunities to use it. Thus "Bush hits back at Iraq critics", BBC News 10/9/2003, quotes him saying that  "There have been bumps in the road, there will be bad days like today, but… it's a lot better than it was".

The usage continued — "For White House, Reversed Iraq Tactics Are Billed as Bumps on Road to Peace", NYT 5/2/2004:

"We have a strategy and we have a plan and we are doing our best to implement it," the [senior administration] official said. "And it runs into bumps in the road, as all plans do."

Presented with a short list of the most notable recent reversals — the abandonment of Mr. Bremer's plan for the transfer of power; the pullback from declarations that Moktada al-Sadr, the renegade Shiite leader in Najaf, must be arrested or killed; a last-minute decision to allow former Iraqi Army soldiers to quell the insurgency in Falluja — the official shrugged.

Academic historians, he said, will have to consider those issues.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has made similar points.

"It's never been an easy road to go from a dictatorship to a free system," he said Thursday in an interview with MSNBC. "It's bumpy. It's hard. And it isn't going to be a straight path."


  1. Jeff Carney said,

    September 25, 2012 @ 3:53 pm

    Yup. This is hardly a 47% moment.

  2. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    September 25, 2012 @ 4:32 pm

    IMHO, almost anything that spews forth, of late, from the former G.W. Bush press secretary, now boffo Republican cheerleader, apologist, taking-head wonk, Ari Fleischer, should be taken w/ a huge grain of salt.

    Obama could hypothetically have killed every Taliban, and Al Qaeda operative on the planet, sealed a binding 2-state peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and put the shaky U.S economy well back on the rails to recovery, and yet Fleischer would continue to bitch and complain that Obama and his administration had fallen woefully short.

    Fleischer's conflating the recent sad and most tragic death of our U.S. ambassador to Libya w/ Obama's clearly metaphorically intended, "bumps in the road" (from his "60 Minutes" interview) , implying that for certain, there will be major political, and economic challenges, going forward, for whatever administration takes the reins in Jan. 2013, is just a blatant irresponsible, cheap-shot, sucker-punch of a statement, and not even worthy of an intelligent response.

    As blogmeister Mark L. has illustrated in his article, the GOP camp, particularly during the inglorious two-term tenure of George Dubya, used the "bumps in the road" phrase at many a press conference, and were hardly admonished, or harshly brought to task by the media for what is a fairly well-accepted, and in-offensive descriptive term in the lexicon of current political jargon.

    Today, it has become so glaringly apparent, that the GOP 'snipers', (and Ari Fleischer ranks high in this passel of 'shooters-from-the-lip' fault-finders), are now grasping at straws, frantically trying to put negative spin on any move Obama makes (or doesn't make, for that matter) in the foreign relations sphere. Obama is basically damned if he does, and damned if doesn't.

    The crafty Romney PR folks, even 'as we speak', are running a radio spot (and perhaps TV, as well) in Florida, using a snippet of a recording of Israeli Premier Bibi Netanyahu's getting verbally tough w/ the U.S. over their not committing to a fully supportive role of his nation in the escalating brouhaha over Iran's alleged rapid push to develop nuclear warheads.

    Clearly this ad is a blatant knock against the Obama administration, and is targeted at the large Jewish constituency, mainly retired seniors, living in Florida, in a seemingly last ditch effort to sway the Jewish vote away from the Dems.

    Of course Florida is one of those prized 'swing states' that could prove to be of pivotal import come voting day in November. (Déja vu all over again, as the great Yogi Berra used to say.)

    As that revered Republican sage, Don Rumsfeld, forewarned, "It's bumpy. And it isn't going to be a straight path." You said it, Donny boy.

  3. Mark N. said,

    September 25, 2012 @ 4:46 pm

    Not quite sure what to make of it, but here's a comparison with a related phrase, "obstacles on the road".

  4. Dave K said,

    September 25, 2012 @ 5:45 pm

    Actually, I have to give Rumsfeld credit for sustaining a metaphor for four consecutive sentences.

  5. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    September 25, 2012 @ 7:56 pm


    That should have been Prime Minister of Israel, Netanyahu, not Premier, as I erroneously wrote in my last post.

    Most international political aficionados would know that Bibi is the big kahuna in Israeli's political hierarchy….. and that would be the PM position. The Premier post would be a lesser rank, but an important functionary in the chain of command, and matters of international diplomacy, nonetheless.

  6. Rod Johnson said,

    September 25, 2012 @ 9:04 pm

    I appreciate Mark's keeping the focus at least somewhat on language here. Windy expositions of electoral politics are easy to come by elsewhere.

  7. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    September 25, 2012 @ 9:45 pm

    @Rod Johnson,

    …. and I approve THAT message. Mea culpa.

    But 'tis the season (election season that is), so I yielded to the temptation to show my true political colors. (Ari Fleischer was such an opportune target.)

    Sadly, I'm not a U.S. citizen, so no exercising my franchise for me come November. Strictly a legal resident alien/ sideline observer, here. (Expat Canadian.)

    At least you could have come right out and called ME the windbag, rather than beating around the bush. (Oops! Bad choice of metaphor there.) But then again, the culprit (moi) is quite obvious, in this case.

    I'll really try to be more language usage appropriate, and on-point, going forward. (And a tad less windy, perhaps.)


  8. M (was L) said,

    September 25, 2012 @ 10:18 pm

    So what amuses me is that he chose to abbreviate "u" but nothing else.

    Note to self: Ari didn't say yo.

    [(myl) This is consistent with the opinion of the teens I know, who assert that abbreviating "you" as "u" is something that only old people do these days. "It's like so 2008."]

  9. Andrew said,

    September 26, 2012 @ 4:41 am

    Talking of selective abbreviation, why does ALEX MCCRAE choose to write "with" as "w/", when everything else is written out in full?

  10. Brett said,

    September 26, 2012 @ 8:24 am

    @ALEX MCCRAE: The noun "premier" means exactly the same thing as "prime minister," so you were fine the first time.

  11. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 26, 2012 @ 9:04 am

    And "professor" means the same thing as "teacher." Of course the title "professor" is not the same thing as the title "teacher," so Mr Netanyahu might be puzzled to find himself "Premier" when all along he thought himself to be "Prime Minister."

    My analysis (fwiw) does not focus on the expression "bump in the road" or its waxing or waning popularity (which, by the way, was interesting to discover), but rather on the retrieval of the expression from Mr Obama's interview to be used to against him for criticism. The expression could easily have been "bridges out" or "sticks in the spokes" with the same effect. Mr Fleischer's opportunism was intended (I believe) to damn Mr Obama by juxtaposing a serious calamity with a seemingly unfeeling and silly metaphor (uttered well in advance of knowledge of said tragedy). That is the dishonesty. Is there an oratorical or linguistic term for this technique?

  12. RP said,

    September 26, 2012 @ 9:19 am

    @Mr Fnorter,
    Maybe this is one of those instances where the word "premier" is understood differently in different nations. Here in the UK it really is a synonym for "prime minister" and few people here would be surprised to see Netanyahu, or indeed our own prime minister Cameron, labelled as "premier".

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/david-cameron/# describes the UK prime minister as the "youngest premier" since Lord Liverpool. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2103871/Cameron-backing-Sarkozy-Premier-accused-interfering-French-elections.html says that the British premier was accused of interfering in French elections. Just two of many examples.

  13. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    September 26, 2012 @ 10:24 am

    I think 'premier' (from 'premier ministre') was a short form for 'Prime Minister' before it became a title in its own right.

  14. Terry Collmann said,

    September 26, 2012 @ 11:04 am

    I wonder if "bumps in the road" sprang from the idea of diplomatic missions having a "roadmap" … unfortunately finding out if one useage came to prominence at the same time as the other will take more time than I CBA to give it.

    On the subject of the use of "premier" in the UK, when I was working on The Times (of London) in the 1980s we were forbidden to refer to the British Prime Minister as the "Premier", and that word was reserved strictly for those heads of government in, eg Canadian provinces whose official title really was "Premier". Of course, what the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail choose to do is up to them …

  15. Andy Averill said,

    September 26, 2012 @ 1:01 pm

    Reminds me of one of my favorite Jay Leno jokes. He was talking about the woman who ran over her husband when she caught him cheating, then backed up and ran over him again. Apparently at one point she was quoted as saying "we had a very happy marriage". Jay's comment was "Even in a happy marriage, there can be a few bumps in the road."

  16. Brett said,

    September 26, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

    In American English also, "premier" is just another word that means "prime minister." While it may not be someone's formal title, it is not stylistically informal and is used frequently in journalistic prose. (From two days ago, the New York Times has this headline: "Former Israeli Premier Gets Suspended Sentence.")

  17. The Ridger said,

    September 26, 2012 @ 1:44 pm

    In Russian, the terms премьер-министр (prem'er-ministr) and премьер (prem'er) are both used for the prime minister; also Председатель Правительства (Chairman of the Government). This causes junior translators not used to Russians' love of multiple referents in the same paragraph to write English that sounds like two or three heads of different governments are involved instead of the one, same guy.

  18. M (was L) said,

    September 26, 2012 @ 6:00 pm

    > Is there an oratorical or linguistic term for this technique?


    Israel has two official languages – Hebrew and Arabic. He has two titles, one in each language, and both literally translate as "Head of Government."

    "Prime Minister" is the usual English, as the position was originally modeled on the British system, with a one-house legislature (Knesset "Assembly") electing the HoG in a manner modelled on Commons. You can see why the expression HoG never really caught on with either Jews or Muslims.

    The system was changed, and the position is now elected directly. This means that the PM might not have a legislative majority, or even a coalition majority. But then, the same is true of the US President.

    Anyhow. Prime Minister and Premier for Bibela are equally right or equally wrong.

  19. J Lee said,

    September 27, 2012 @ 5:10 am

    the examples from the bush years are what prove fleischer's criticism, that it wasnt an appropriate use of the metaphor. plus obama has a tendency to resort to extremely crude metaphors that often involve cars that some people may not be fond of hearing from the supposed world's greatest orator, especially considering his statement that his greatest failure as president was assuming that voters would understand the brilliance of his policies without him spoon-feeding them a 'story'.

    in reality we dont know the exact focus of fleischer's criticism: mine would be that obama glossed over the death of an ambassador because to dwell on the issue would mean discussing security and whether he even considers his libya policy somewhat responsible. how many 'international aficionados' consider that country better off now than in the bush years??
    it's pretty intellectually lazy to dismiss all criticism as republican 'cheap-shots'.

  20. Shiny said,

    September 27, 2012 @ 9:44 am

    @M (was L)
    Just to set the record straight, the system was actually changed back in 2001 (with the first elections after that being in 2003), and the prime minister is no longer elected directly. We are back to voting just for the party.

  21. M (was L) said,

    September 27, 2012 @ 1:00 pm

    @Shiny, The Ridger – I was unaware of the change back to "parliamentary" PM election in Israel, vs direct. Making sense of my own country's politics is boggling enough – as witness the whole "bump in the road" business above.

    It's also hard for an American to conceive the difference between "Head of State" and "Head of Government" since we invest both position in the President. That might explain part of the problem in reporting the Russian leadership's positions, although we are never confused by the titles President when applied to France or Israel, and we are not misled into thinking that the President is really the one in charge. Most of us just can't puzzle out what the hell he does.

    Inevitably somebody "explains" to us that the job is akin to that of the Queen of the UK or the Governor-General of Canada, and we nod and wonder what the hell they do either, but we're comfortable accepting that it's akin to that other thing we don't understand.

  22. Bloix said,

    September 27, 2012 @ 1:42 pm

    "abbreviating "you" as "u" is something that only old people do"

    My children recently told me that it embarrasses them when I text, r u busy? Call me pls. So I've stopped doing it even though r u is a lot easier for me than Are you.

    Note also that asking someone to call you – like, to talk – is something only an old person would do.

  23. RP said,

    September 27, 2012 @ 2:32 pm

    @M (was L), you can't equate the role of the president in France (or Russia or Romania) with the role of president in Ireland/Germany/Israel/Portugal/Poland. To some extent the French president really is the person in charge (hopefully not micromanaging day to day, but certainly able to set the direction), at least when his or her own party has a majority, and even when his party is in the minority, the president is usually able to play a significant role in foreign policy. There are really at least three models: parliamentary (either a parliamentary republic such as Germany/Israel/Ireland/Portugal/Poland, or a constitutional monarchy such as the UK/Denmark/Sweden/Netherlands); presidential (as in the US and Latin America); and semi-presidential (as in France and Romania – and possibly Russia – also Finland until recently). The semi-presidential republics elect their presidents directly. Of the parliamentary republics, very few elect their presidents by popular vote, although Ireland does so.

  24. M (was L) said,

    September 28, 2012 @ 9:36 am

    Well, whatever your politics (US, Israeli, or otherwise) most or all leaders of most or all nations experience a few bumps in the road.

    "rocky road" – according to Google N-gram – fell rapidly from 1800-1820, and rose from 1980 to the last data; this is true in both US & US English, and the post-1980 rise appears in fiction as well. I attribute this post-1980 rise, on no evidence whatever, to the ice cream.

    Does it reflect on Presidents, as bumps in the road seem to? In US English, it has notable peaks at the Civil War (1860s), WWII, but oddly a trough at WWI. Of course, it's me imposing that interpretation; I'm reading years as wars. You could as well read them as Presidential terms, in which case the post-1980 steady rise in the use of "rocky road" suggests that each Prez's road is rockier than the last.

    But I still think that's the ice cream.

    But seriously folks. If it really tracked to Presidents, you'd expect a cycle in the data that tracked to the four-year election cycle, with notable perturbations when a Prez left mid-term for whatever reason – never ever a routine matter (eg JFK, Nixon). If the British English data tracked to UK politics, you'd expect a less regular pattern associated with the less-regular general elections.

    But I still think it's the ice cream.

  25. Rod Johnson said,

    September 28, 2012 @ 2:48 pm

    I'm not sure how seriously you intend the ice cream explanations, but people use "rocky" as a metaphor for difficult or obstacle-strewn without "road" all the time. How's the relationship? Rocky. How was the president's first year? Rocky? You really tied one on last night! How are you feeling? Rocky.

    There kind of a mess in the path-related metaphors for progress area, with various surfaces (rocky, smooth, slippery), directions (uphill, downhill, tortuous), types of difficulties (rocks, bumps, mire, cliffs, dead ends, getting lost) and path-type objects (roads, paths, streams, rows (as in "he has a tough row to hoe," which as you might guess has been confused with tough road to hoe)). Seems like a fertile field for gaffes.

  26. Rod Johnson said,

    September 28, 2012 @ 2:49 pm

    Sorry, I have to post this example here: "If so you’ll enjoy a Tough Road To Hoe and find it easy sledding, the book that is if not the road."

  27. thecynicalromantic said,

    September 28, 2012 @ 4:15 pm

    I keep trying to count the number of characters in Mr. Fleischer's tweet and messing up, but is it possible that he may have only abbreviated the "you" to meet Twitter's 140-character limit? I don't usually use abbreviations in text messages and such because I don't want to sound like my dad (or a senator or something), but I will use them on Twitter if my tweet would otherwise be just a few characters too long.

    [(myl) The quoted portion is 126 characters.]

  28. M (was L) said,

    September 28, 2012 @ 4:23 pm

    @Rod Johnson –

    I wasn't kidding, but as it turns out I'm pretty sure I was wrong.

    It's not just the word "rocky" which in addition to all the metaphors is also the name of a large mountain range, countless other geographic features, and several dreadful movies. However I specified the two-word phrase "rocky road" as such. Admittedly, some of the uses could well have referred to an actual road with actual rocks, or even to an alliterative boxer. In this corner, in the white shorts with chocolate and marshmallow stains….

    Anyhow, ice cream was my intuition – but then I looked closer and the sharp and steady rise of the phrase "rocky road" since 1980 is not matched by "cherry garcia" as one would plainly expect, nor even by "chunky monkey."

    Disappointing, really.

  29. M (was L) said,

    September 28, 2012 @ 4:25 pm

    DUH! It's case-sensitive.


  30. M (was L) said,

    September 28, 2012 @ 4:27 pm


  31. Rod Johnson said,

    September 28, 2012 @ 4:36 pm

    Interestingly, Rocky Road the ice cream was supposedly invented in 1929, so what's all that earlier stuff doing there?

    …oh, this.

  32. M (was L) said,

    September 28, 2012 @ 10:55 pm



  33. Chandra said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 5:04 pm

    @Brett: "In American English also, "premier" is just another word that means "prime minister.""

    Whereas in Canadian English, the Prime Minister is our federal leader and the Premiers are the provincial heads of government. I've never seen the two terms to overlap in our media.

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