Fay-Cutler malapropism of the week

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Well we- we- we- we- we hope it won't
and again you know we're working on mass distribution
of the virus
uh and again

For more on word-substitution errors like Mnuchin's virus for vaccine, see "Defendants wrongly committed of a crime", 8/4/2011.

There are a couple of other interesting speech-production phenomena in this short clip:

  • The five rapid repetitions of we, an example of the kind of repetition disfluency that I've suggested ought to be called an "interpolation";
  • Two uses of "and again" in 7 seconds, which along with "you know" can do dual duty as as a discourse connective and a filler phrase.

I haven't been able to locate a recording of the longer interview that this came from — please let me know in the comments if you find it.




  1. Gregory Kusnick said,

    November 21, 2020 @ 10:54 am

    Maybe Mnuchin is secretly working for Bill Gates.

    [(myl) ..which would make this a Freudian slip…]

  2. Robert Coren said,

    November 21, 2020 @ 11:10 am

    Some might suggest that the current administration has done a pretty good job of distributing the virus.

  3. Thiago Ribeiro said,

    November 21, 2020 @ 11:31 am

    "At a signing ceremony for a defense-spending bill on Aug. 5, 2004, Bush gave an unintentionally ominous progress report on the war on terror. 'Our enemies are innovative and resourceful,' he said, 'And so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people,' he continued, 'And neither do we.' Even more disturbing is the fact that he was reading from prepared text." — http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1870938_1870943_1870951,00.html

  4. Andrew Usher said,

    November 21, 2020 @ 1:14 pm

    Bush's statement you quote was actually correct. It means that we, no less than our enemies, never stop thinking about ways in which we might be attacked. The fact that the two are not for the same purpose is unspoken but should be clear from context.

    True, it seems Bush and the writer did not see the other possible meaning, but as we should know, that can happen to anyone; it's not a sign of lower than average intelligence.

    This on the other hand is an unambiguous error, but just as much, not an indicator of stupidity (perhaps of lower fluency in speaking, but that does not seem to be very related to intelligence).

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  5. Shannon said,

    November 21, 2020 @ 2:36 pm

    Maybe this is a bit of a stretch but for some reason I thought of intending to say "mass destruction" of the virus, and was wondering if that had any influence — after all destroy and distribute both start off with similar sounds and when it comes to the vaccine and the virus, one's rise is another's fall and if you use a metaphor of fighting or battling, it kind of makes sense (if you switch mid-way in thought about which "side" you're talking about the vaccine's or the virus, you might make the gaffe).

  6. JPL said,

    November 21, 2020 @ 6:16 pm

    I've noticed several different people — maybe four or five — on the TV, not the public health professionals, but the journalists, making this particular substitution of "virus" for "vaccine", all in the message context of trying to express something about a vaccine to combat the virus; and, I could be wrong about this, but I think mostly in talking about the distribution of the vaccine. Phonologically you only have the initial consonant and number of syllables in common; if you didn't have that, would we still have that many substitutions? An alternative possibility is that this is the result of a deletion of preceding expressions ("… a vaccine to combat…", or the like). It's a funny puzzle about the relation between otoh expression and otoh intended meaning and intended reference.

  7. Viseguy said,

    November 21, 2020 @ 7:57 pm

    Given his recent reported actions, I have no problem taking Mnuchin at his word. Plus, it must be the virus he's talking about, because there's no vaccine to distribute to the masses, yet. If he'd said we're working on mass distribution of the virus to red states, I'd cut him some slack.

  8. Thiago Ribeiro said,

    November 21, 2020 @ 8:22 pm

    @Andrew Usher
    Apparently, even the White House admited he had mispoken. See the description: https://youtu.be/WRX8v_WjRGw

  9. Andrew Usher said,

    November 21, 2020 @ 9:43 pm

    Well, it didn't sound like a mistake to me and it must have been the exact words written because he showed no disfluency and there is no plausible substitution from another possible wording that would lead to it.

    I got the interpretation I stated right away, especially because he then amplified it with "We must never stop thinking about how best to defend our country." The person that admitted Bush 'misspoke' probably didn't know the full speech but only that he was supposed to say something that would satisfy the media's dumb questions.

  10. Thiago Ribeiro said,

    November 22, 2020 @ 4:32 am

    1) I doubt any White Office official would make such a specific admission (even a straight talker misspeaks sometimes) of error without knowing the facts. Much less admit something just because the press makes questions. It is not how politics works, it certainly was not how Bush's White House works.
    2) I really doubt Bush meant the argumentative leap you are implying he did: "Americans must find new ways of hurting their country" (ommiting "so they can't prevent their implementation by terrorists").

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 22, 2020 @ 11:50 am

    Andrew Usher: In "We/They think about ways to [verb]", I'd always assume that [subject] is the agent of [verb]. Likewise with the elaboration of "never stop thinking".

    If the intended meaning is what you suggest, which seems reasonable, I'd call the text an error. One way I could imagine it arising is that someone wrote, "They never stop thinking about new ways they could hurt our country and our people. And neither do we." Then that person or someone else saw that the first sentence could be made more concise with "ways to hurt" and didn't see what the change would do to the next sentence.

  12. Francois Lang said,

    November 23, 2020 @ 11:01 am

    Re Bush:
    Hubert Humphrey once said

    No sane person in the country likes the War in Vietnam, and neither does President Johnson.


  13. Andy Stow said,

    November 23, 2020 @ 1:45 pm

    I'm reminded of when people ask me to "support breast cancer" or "support childhood leukemia."

    What kind of monster do they think I am?

  14. Andrew Usher said,

    November 23, 2020 @ 7:28 pm

    Jerry Friedman:
    I think you're right; that seems most plausible, but in any event calling it a misspeaking by Bush is inaccurate. Thiago Ribeiro doesn't know what he's talking about, and his use of 'make questions' rather than 'ask questions' is a dead giveaway he's not familiar with any English-speaking country.

    Still I believe it is grammatical as delivered: I imagine the similar phrasing "I think about ways to break in [and then think about how to stop them]", which seems OK to me.

    Francois Lang:
    The Humphrey quote actually reads like a joke to me, but I'll take the word of your sources that it wasn't meant as one (nor to seriously suggest Johnson was not sane), but was a scope error involving 'neither', as the Bush quote could also be taken as.

  15. Terry K. said,

    November 24, 2020 @ 3:03 pm

    Seems to me that the Bush quote, as quoted at least, if it was meant to mean "we don't stop thinking of new ways our enemies could harm our country", it fails at that. If that's what's meant, it's some kind of error. It reads as trying to say "we also never stop thinking of ways to hurt our enemies", succeeding at conveying the meaning, while also suggesting another, nonsensical meaning (that we keep thinking of new ways to hurt our country).

  16. Andrew Usher said,

    November 24, 2020 @ 6:37 pm

    Well, that's a third possible meaning, but not, I think, justified grammatically nor by the context. 'Neither' is a tricky word; if you want to say something unambiguous – which the Bush statement obviously was not – you need to be careful with it. As mentioned, scope ambiguity is easy to run into.

    In contexts like these, the negative of 'neither' is not 'either' but so: the statement could have been 'They think of ways … and so do we'. To render the statement unambiguous, you'd have to replace "And neither do we" with something like "And we also never stop thinking of ways they could" (less literally "And/but we're ready for whatever they think of") or, in your suggested meaning, "And we also never stop thinking of ways to hurt them" (again, I don't think that belligerence was intended).

    Those are relatively clunky, though, and I can see why rhetorically the simple 'neither do we' could be seen preferable even if it does have the nonsense meaning also. Remember that ambiguity is everywhere in real-world use of language, and one way we must deal with it is to automatically exclude implausible meanings, usually without even considering them consciously – except, of course, when humor value is desired, as it was by whoever first cited this is a 'Bushism'.

  17. JPL said,

    November 25, 2020 @ 1:48 am

    E.g., with a mistaken or defective expression such as, "We're working on mass distribution of the virus.", as said there by Mnuchin, the intended meaning may be judged as true, but the expressed meaning (the meaning of the expression as normally interpreted) would be judged as false. So if we're talking about the "thought" in Frege's sense, where the thought is the sense of a complete sentence, and is what is judged true or false in the particular case, in this case we have two possible candidates: the thought that the speaker actually had in a concrete sense, hidden behind the expression, and otoh the thought as the objective abstract logical object conventionally understood as the meaning of that expression. But the speaker did not actually have that "thought" in the concrete sense. The speaker's concrete intended, but hidden, sense then would be true, but the abstract object associated with the observed expression would be false. That's why in a pragmatic analysis I always take the notion of "the meaning of the sentence" as provisional, (among other reasons) giving the speaker a chance to bring expressed and intended meaning into line, because in a particular case they may not be in line.

  18. JPL said,

    November 25, 2020 @ 2:24 am

    Further, I should say, in a description of a language system I would be more interested in the objective abstract logical object and not the "psychological" one; but in this particular case the logical object is not created or "done" by the speaker: if it is "done" at all, it would be "done" by the hearer. ("psychological" vs. "logical" as an instance of the "process" vs. "product" distinction.)

  19. JPL said,

    November 26, 2020 @ 7:00 pm

    So wrt the psychological object, the concrete "thought" created by the speaker as the intended sense of his attempt at expression, did it include an instance of the category 'vaccine' or not, and if so, when did that happen, and why didn't it show up in the expression? Or could the speaker be said, rather, to have had a "thought" logically equivalent to that conventionally indicated by the expression, perhaps as he was uttering the expression? These questions may seem weird, but I'm curious what the psychologists have said about them, because it's kind of important for trying to understand the empirical (as contrasted with the logical) relation between propositions and sentences.

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