Transmemo? Metascript? Memcon.

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Yesterday, Merriam-Webster tweet-teased Donald Trump over a couple of glosses:

The issue is a document released yesterday by the White House, under the title "Memorandum of Telephone Conversation", which the president and others have called a "transcript".

In fact, the English language lacks a generally-used word to describe documents of this type, because they seem to be a genre specific to recent decades of the American presidency. This is explained by Katie Mettler and Carol Leonnig in "‘Transcripts’ of presidential calls are nearly verbatim but not exact. Here’s how the process works", Washington Post 9/25/2019:

The “Memorandum of Telephone Conversation” — or “memcon” — released Wednesday is not a transcript, by definition. […]

White House conversations have not been recorded since the mid-1970s, when President Richard Nixon scandalized the practice, said Laurence Pfeiffer, a senior director of the White House Situation Room during the Obama administration.

Memcons are instead created by a team of note-takers, initially, who contemporaneously record, by hand and on computers, what the president and the other party say. The note-takers are duty officers — nonpartisan career staff with military or national security experience — whose job it is to monitor the Situation Room around the clock. […]

But former White House staffers said that the Trump administration, in a departure from prior presidencies, has been more willing to edit the telephone conversation memos to remove errors or insensitive remarks Trump has made, apparently in an effort to avoid political heat or embarrassment.

“Don’t rely on whatever transcript is released,” said a former staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment candidly. “Even if it’s unredacted; those transcripts are heavily edited by political leadership at NSC. I’ve seen substance deleted from these call ‘transcripts’ to delete either superfluous details or more substance.”

Memcon has yet to have a Word Induction Ceremony at Merriam-Webster or the OED or even Wiktionary — apparently it's a White-House-specific coinage to describe this White-House-specific referent.

The declassified memcon has this "CAUTION" on its first page:

M-W's tweet abbreviated their own dictionary entry in a potentially misleading way, by defining transcript as "a typed copy of dictated or recorded material". The relevant part of the online entry, sense 1a, is

a written, printed, or typed copy
especially a usually typed copy of dictated or recorded material

In other times and places, a transcript might have involved shorthand or stenotyping. Or re-speaking, which is apparently part of the White House memcon process.

Oddly, Trump calls the memcon a "letter" in this Fox News interview:



  1. J said,

    September 26, 2019 @ 5:41 am

    Another item of linguistic interest here could be Mettler and Leonnig’s (or perhaps Pfeiffer’s) transitive use of “scandalized.” It doesn’t feel right to me; does this have precedent? Maybe it’s dialectal, or specific to political usage?

  2. loonquawl said,

    September 26, 2019 @ 6:05 am

    So the taping that produced incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing on Nixon's part was stopped after Nixon 'scandalized' it.

    If everything that was thus 'scandalized' was stopped, we'd only have verbal agreements in two-person negotiations in back rooms.

    Though i'd love to hear that 'tweeting stopped after Trump scandalized it'

  3. Phillip Helbig said,

    September 26, 2019 @ 9:32 am

    You hit one of my pet peeves.

    One is missing hyphens in two-word adjectives. Please asked the high energy physicist what he has been smoking, and we must admire Weinberg's humility when calling himself an elementary particle physicist.

    The other is misplaced "only". Consider the sentence "The bishop gave the biscuit to the baboon" and insert "only" in each space, producing sentences with different meaning. Very often, "only" should be in some other place to convey the intended meaning.

    The third are extra hyphens, which remind me of grocers' apostrophes: "generally-used". Since "generally" is an adverb, it obviously modifes "used", so there is no ambiguity and no need for a hyphen. I increasingly see "well-known" and "oft-quote" and so on. If this keeps up, soon we'll see "I caught a very-big" fish.

  4. KevinM said,

    September 29, 2019 @ 10:05 pm

    @J. Well, there's this:

    I met my brother the other day
    And gave him my right hand
    As soon as ever my back was turned
    He scandalized my name
    Now do you call that a brother?
    No, no
    You call that a brother?
    No, no
    You call that a brother
    No, no
    Scandalize my name
    Sung by Paul Robeson and many others, but given a most humorous turn by Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman

  5. Andrew Usher said,

    September 30, 2019 @ 6:10 pm

    'Memcon' is certainly an ugly word. I think I'd prefer to just say 'transcript': despite the technical inaccuracy, that's still the closest standard term.

    It's amusing that while recording the conversation is now off-limits, have a bunch of people listening in, any one of whom could leak information, is deemed OK!

    Phillip Helbig:
    I don't think hyphenation is that simple. Certainly 'well-known' is absolutely standard, as is 'oft-quoted', and I'd be more surprised to see them _without_ the dash.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

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