Half-vast ideas

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A CNN interview with former National Security Adviser John Bolton about the January 6th hearings is getting lots of attention for his casual observation, "As somebody who has helped plan coups d'état — not here, but, you know, other places — it takes a lot of work."

Shortly before that (about 40 seconds into the above video clip), there was another notable line, in which Bolton dismissed the idea that Donald Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election results constituted "a carefully planned coup d'état":

That's not the way Donald Trump does things. It's rambling from one half-vast idea to another. One plan that falls through and another comes up.

Here's the audio:

And here's the closed-captioning on the CNN video:

Bolton is making a playful substitution of half-vast for half-assed, though his half-assed attempt at humor didn't land for everyone. The Daily Beast, among other media outlets, mistranscribed the line as, "It's rambling from one half-assed idea to another."

But it's clear that Bolton actually said "half-vast" — the [v] sound is unmistakable. Here's the isolated audio for "half-vast," along with a spectrogram from Praat showing the unvoiced [f] of "half" followed by a slight pause and then the voiced onset of "vast."

Even when transcribed correctly, as by the Washington Post and the Guardian, the line has led to some confusion. On the American Dialect Society mailing list, Stephen Goranson noted how the Guardian quoted Bolton, leading Larry Horn to observe, "Presumably the Guardian would have expected Bolton to have referred to 'half-arsed' ideas, if that's what he meant." Larry continued:

I recall an argument several decades ago among theoretical linguists about "The vastness of natural language" — to which some of us were willing to concede that natural language was half-vast.

The half-vast joke is an old one, particularly in the slogan, "Don't start vast projects with half-vast ideas." That appeared as early as Mar. 8, 1957 in El Gaucho, a student newspaper of UC Santa Barbara. News databases find it occurring frequently over the next few years. In the May 1958 issue of Aero/Space Engineering, the motto is given as an epigraph to the article, "Our Philosophy of Space Missions" by Krafft A. Ehricke, from the Convair division of General Dynamics. (Ehricke credits the Jan. 1958 issue of Reader's Digest.)

Versions of the half-vast line caught on in US military circles. A 1959 pamphlet from the Ordnance Board of the Aberdeen Proving Ground was titled, "Vast and Half Vast Ideas." And in Congressional testimony in April 1960, Vice Admiral John T. Hayward, deputy chief of naval operations, said, "We cannot go into vast projects with half vast ideas." John Bolton might have picked it up from his Vietnam-era service in the National Guard, or conceivably in his later State and Justice Department service starting in the Reagan administration (when he was helping plan coups d'état?). When Reagan was entering office in 1981, then-counselor Edwin Meese was quoted in Newsweek as saying, "You don't start vast projects with half vast ideas."

Another playful substitution of half-assed appeared in an advertising campaign for Verizon in 2014: half-fastMark Liberman posted one of the Verizon commercials on Language Log on a tip from reader David Donnell, who noted that the half-fast joke had been around for a while. (Commenters also brought up the half-vast variation on the theme.)

As for the euphemized term half-assed, meaning "careless, inadequate, incompetent, second-rate," Jonathon Green in Green's Dictionary of Slang dates it to 1811 in US usage, though it originally appeared with the British-style half-arsed spelling. It hardly seems like a taboo term in need of substitution at this point, but old jokes die hard.



13 Comments »

  1. Daphne Preston-Kendal said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 3:24 pm

    The 1811 cite in GDoS is marked (Hudson, NY), so it’s also a US use. The program that matches the dictionary citations to the bibliography entries doesn’t pick it up, though, so it gets a grey ‘don’t know’ flag.

    [(bgz) Thanks — fixed!]

  2. Buzz79 said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 4:37 pm

    I'm curious – why are you so certain that this was an attempt at humor (however half-assed) and not a simple mistake? I can't think of any cases where someone would use the term "vast idea" in such a context so the contrast with a half-vast idea would be quite a stretch. In every example you cite, there is an explicit contrast of a vast something with a half-vast approach.

  3. AntC said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 4:56 pm

    why are you so certain that this was an attempt at humor (however half-assed) and not a simple mistake?

    Listen to the audio. Bolton clearly pauses after 'half', switches to voiced 'vast' with no carry-over of the voiceless '-lf'. Indeed I might be hearing a bit of nasal onset before the 'v-'.

    Or do you mean: Bolton has not previously been known as a comic. Perhaps he thinks that's how everyone describes ideas?

    Nah. I doubt I agree with Bolton on anything, but I don't think he's stupid. And he clearly appraised T**** as a grandiose (= vast) narcissist with no idea how to complete an idea (= half-).

  4. Ben Zimmer said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 5:44 pm

    @Buzz79: As AntC suggests, the deliberate way that Bolton said "half (pause) vast" makes it unlikely to have been a speech error. And while it's true that half-vast is typically primed by vast on its own, that's not always necessary — see these examples of "half-vast idea(s)" from 1978, 1979, and 2002. In such cases, the contrast with vast is implicit. (Familiarity with the original joke no doubt helps with this interpretation.)

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 7:43 pm

    It seems to me that there's a slight difference between (a) Bolton aiming for comedy and (b) Bolton, for whatever sense-of-propriety reasons, reaching for a very lightly minced alternative to a not-actually-very-taboo word, even if the available alternative has a jocular origin. I have no idea which it is; the evidence seems consistent with both. I would note, however, that "ass" (and thus its derivatives, I should expect) has gotten notably less taboo in AmEng over the course of my own lifetime and I am over 15 years younger than Bolton, so it's plausible that his own sense of propriety-when-talking-to-the-press was formed in his younger years when it was notably more taboo.

    There ought to be corpus-like data on this, from prim corpora. What year did the New York Times first print "half-assed"? How about the New Yorker? What year did it first appear in the script of a major network tv sitcom? As recently as 1984 it was thought newsworthy (because you could find people who would at least affect shock/concern) that the Vice-President of the United States was overheard using the phrase "kicked some ass."

  6. Brett said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 9:02 pm

    I wouldn't rely on Bolton's enunciation to conclude that this wasn't a unintentional malapropism. (It's evidence, but it's not dispositive.) I had more than once caught myself making just that kind of error. Primed by some semantic factor, I say the wrong word, with an exaggeratedly clear pronunciation that would not have been necessary if I had used the correct word to begin with. It is as if once the incorrect word has been selected, another mental "module" largely takes over and adjusts my enunciation without a conscious effort.

  7. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 14, 2022 @ 8:59 am

    What year did it first appear in the script of a major network tv sitcom?

    Probably not scripted, but I recall Gilda Radner as Rosanne Rosannadanna reading the following fan mail from the fictitious Richard Feder of Fort Lee, NJ during the 1979 oil crisis:

    This weekend is boring for me
    'Cause I have to stay here in Fort Lee.
    Having no gas, I declare
    Is a pain in the rear
    'Cause you can't say "ass" on TV.

  8. Rube said,

    July 14, 2022 @ 9:50 am

    @J.W. Brewster: Don't know if it was the first sitcom usage, but "ass" was used in the M*A*S*H episode "Blood and Guts" in 1982. I remember clearly being struck by it at the time, since I had no memory of ever hearing it in a primetime American TV series before.

  9. Robert Coren said,

    July 14, 2022 @ 1:44 pm

    The Boston Globe's transcription, somewhat oddly, was "half, vast ideas". At the time, with no other input, I assumed it was a mistranscription for "half-assed". I also immediately thought of my 11th-grade physics teacher, who used "half-vast" and "half-fast" jocularly as a regular thing. (Example: "I have a fast class, a slow class, and a half-fast class" – the last of which, of course, was the one he was addressing.)

  10. Michael Watts said,

    July 15, 2022 @ 4:46 pm

    The Boston Globe's transcription, somewhat oddly, was "half, vast ideas".

    It was an odd thing for him to say, but it's not an odd transcription – there is a bizarre, ostentatious pause in the utterance exactly where the Boston Globe transcribed such a pause.

  11. DDeden said,

    July 15, 2022 @ 6:33 pm

    To me, half-vast is a public/official taboo replacement of half-assed, vocal parallel to the form of 'half-past'.

  12. David Marjanović said,

    July 16, 2022 @ 2:56 am

    Fun fact: in actual French it's État even in coup d'État. The State is to be taken seriously, love it or hate it!

    I doubt I agree with Bolton on anything, but I don't think he's stupid.

    Oh, he is, just not in comparison to Trump. I've read parts of his tell-all book and kept being struck by his inability to follow any complex argument.

    there is a bizarre, ostentatious pause in the utterance exactly where the Boston Globe transcribed such a pause.

    So it fell for the widespread myth that commas indicate pauses. *grumble*

  13. Batchman said,

    July 16, 2022 @ 5:16 pm

    When the Rolling Stones sang "It's All Over Now", the version I heard on US radio was "modified", though I didn't realize it until much later when I finally had access to the recording. The line "playing her half-assed game" cleverly had the starting syllable of "half" erased, resulting in "playing her fast game" … which sounded perfectly plausible if you didn't know any better.

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