Going rogue

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According to Ben Smith ("Palin allies report rising campaign tension", Politico, 10/25/2008):

Four Republicans close to Palin said she has decided increasingly to disregard the advice of the former Bush aides tasked to handle her, creating occasionally tense situations as she travels the country with them. Those Palin supporters, inside the campaign and out, said Palin blames her handlers for a botched rollout and a tarnished public image — even as others in McCain's camp blame the pick of the relatively inexperienced Alaska governor, and her public performance, for McCain's decline.

"She's lost confidence in most of the people on the plane," said a senior Republican who speaks to Palin, referring to her campaign jet. He said Palin had begun to "go rogue" in some of her public pronouncements and decisions.

"I think she'd like to go more rogue," he said.

I haven't had the time or motivation to read all 637 comments on Smith's post, but a quick scan suggests that no one has yet complained that "go rogue" and "go more rogue" are ungrammatical. I doubt that this is because prescriptivists don't read Politico — perhaps they're temporarily distracted by partisan enthusiasm. It's certainly not likely that the would-be defenders of our linguistic civilization have accepted this construction, despite its use over the years by English writers and speakers of all kinds.

It was a prescriptivist intervention that led me to discuss a related set of examples several years ago ("To pass into a certain condition, chiefly implying deterioration", 6/30/2004).  One of William Safire's readers,  Daniel Baldwin of New York, appealed for confirmation of his view that "the term 'goes missing' is grammatically incorrect". Mr. Safire sensibly disagreed, and I risked expulsion from the LSA by supporting and even praising his analysis.

As I observed,

"go PREDICATIVE" often suggests that the predicative is a kind of deterioration: go bad, go ballistic, go bananas, go bankrupt, go blank, go cold, go crazy, go dead, go gray, go Hollywood, go lame, go mad, go native, go numb, go nuclear, go nuts, go sour, go vacant, go wrong.

Sometimes the corresponding positively-evaluated condition doesn't work: go bad but ?go good (in the sense of "become good", not as an informal version of "go well"), go crazy but ?go sane. However, there are some positively evaluated conditions in common inchoative collocations with go: go live, go platinum, go blonde.

On the other hand, there are also common adjectives expressing deterioration that don't seem to work well with go, preferring get instead: ?go sick, ?go fat, ?go dizzy, ?go sleepy, ?go antsy.

Note also that the meaning of the predicate is often restricted: thus went dead is fine if you're talking about a phone line or a radio, but doesn't work to mean that an animate being died.

All in all, the collocational propensities of go, in this construction, seem much more like derivational morphology than like normal compositional syntax.

But in any case, Mr. Baldwin was all wet, in the curious manner of those prescriptivists who allow their rationalizations to overcome their common sense. The rationalization, in this case, seems to be that missing modifies go, and therefore must be an adverb. Since missing doesn't have the form of an adverb — well, the obvious conclusion is that the analysis is wrong, and we should think again about the structure of this indubitably grammatical English phrase.

There's a subtle difference between "go rogue" (and "go crazy/native/missing/etc.") and a number of other "<motion-verb> <state-expression>" cases discussed in several posts last year ("Amid this vague uncertainty, who walks safe?", 2/23/2007; "A moment that never going to lost", 3/18/2007; "The Grammar Vandal strikes in Boston", 7/16/2007). When you "go crazy", you've undergone a change of state. First you weren't crazy, then you were. But if a river "runs smooth", it needn't ever have run any other way.

Of course, go is a motion verb, and so

Do not go gentle into that good night

is no more suggestive of a change of state than

The course of true love never did run smooth

In any case, "go rogue" is not a new coinage. A search on Google Books suggest that it's especially popular in science fiction and fantasy, most often applied to robots, cyborgs, or other intelligent machines such as spaceship AIs, but also to members of fantasy races such as spell-bound animal spirits, vampires, elves, and so on. Of the first 50 Google Books hits that I checked, more than half seem to be of this kind. Close in second place are cases of intelligence agents or "black ops" specialists who "go rogue" by pursuing a private agenda without the approval of their handlers. And of course there are a few elephants and other real-world animals. Oh, and a woman in a romance novel who escapes the bounds of politeness to make a scandalous scene ("Everyone she passed there stared […] as if they didn't know when she'd go rogue on them again, and they certainly wouldn't approve if she did, but they didn't want to miss it if possible.")

It's interesting  — but not surprising — that (some) political operatives think of their candidates in the way that others think of robots, animals, elves, and death-squad members: useful but dangerous creatures whose initiative needs to be carefully restrained by programming, training, or magical spells.


  1. Mark P said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

    I assume that the political advisors who use the term mean it in a negative way. It's interesting that it seems OK, or even admirable, to be a maverick but not a rogue. Is this similar to "one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter"?

  2. Norma said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 2:15 pm

    I have no idea what go rogue means, I've never used it, but I have started using "you betcha." Language, and particularly English, changes all the time. Thanks for the heads up. I'll be watching, you betcha.

  3. David B said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 2:39 pm

    I'm interested in "go more rogue"; while "go rogue" seems pretty common, the only Google hits for "go more rogue" and "gone more rogue" – with a single exception, where it's used in "some of these countries have gone more rogue than others" – are either references to the Palin story or to fantasy role-playing games, where the term is used pretty literally. (To create a player character that has more training as a rogue than another.) "Go rogue" is basically a stock expression in science fiction and other fiction genres, but I've never seen it intensified in that way; I guess it's typically a binary thing. (You've either gone rogue or you haven't.)

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 2:47 pm

    David B: I'm interested in "go more rogue" … "Go rogue" is basically a stock expression in science fiction and other fiction genres, but I've never seen it intensified in that way; I guess it's typically a binary thing. (You've either gone rogue or you haven't.)

    Yes, I had the same thought. But if you're still mostly in a non-rogue state, and just getting off the leash from time to time, it makes sense to apply a degree modifier. Still, I'm not sure exactly what the "senior Republican" meant by "go more rogue" — perhaps it's "go rogue more often", or perhaps it's "go even more strongly rogue (i.e. even farther away from the handlers' instructions)". Or both.

  5. Janet Swisher said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 4:29 pm

    I would expect that earliest attested subject of "go rogue" would be "elephant", since "rogue elephant" dates to 1859, according to m-w.com, much earlier than almost all sci-fi and fantasy. This connection, of course, makes "rogue" an especially apt descriptor for a Republican.

    It also makes me wonder when "go PREDICATIVE" first became productive, since the examples you give all sound modern to me. In a quick skim of the OED, the closest examples I could find were "go under", meaning to fail, and "go up", also meaning to fail, from 1849 and 1864, respectively, but "under" and "up" are adverbs, not adjectives.

  6. Rubrick said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 4:41 pm

    As long as she doesn't go more rouge. I don't think the country could take that.

  7. marie-lucie said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 4:52 pm

    This is a little off-topic but related: I don't recall ever reading anything on the characterization of aides or advisers attached to a candidate as "handlers". I first noticed that use when GWBush was first elected, although it could be older. "Handlers" for a person? I knew the word in the context of dangerous but tamed (not necessarily "tame") animals, such as circus lions or tigers, or working elephants, and of animals being prepared for shows, such as dogs. The word evokes leashes and other restraints being manipulated by the handlers so as to make sure that the animal behaves as the handler wants. But that a person, especially a political candidate for the highest office in the world, should need to be given into the care of anonymous "handlers", with no one raising an eyebrow at the description, let alone its implications (who chooses and directs the "handlers" who are directing the candidate?), I find hard to accept. I have been following this election campaign quite closely and don't think that members of Obama's entourage are being described as his "handlers" – he can handle himself quite well, thank you very much. I am not surprised that Sarah Palin (a self-described "pit bull with lipstick") is "going rogue" under such restraints – that she might be too much for "handlers" to handle does not seem to have occurred to the one(s) who chose her.

  8. Karen said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 5:34 pm

    Interestingly, Palin is on record as saying that " 'Rogue' isn't a negative term" (in the context of having referred to Walt Moneghan as one). So there's another dimension to the remark as applied to her.

  9. bulbul said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 5:41 pm


    with no one raising an eyebrow at the description, let alone its implications

    There's this comedy routine by Lewis Black on his album "The Carnegie Hall Performance" where he describes how he prepared for his performance at the Congressional Correspondents dinner. In that routine, he reproduces a conversation he had with the organizers who insist that president's handlers vet his material. Black's reaction (audio, mp3, 1MB):

    "President [Bush 43] has handlers … Is he like a bear? Bears need handlers. Maybe that's it. He's like a big bear and they need a chunk of meat and they take it 'Come on, follow us, you've got a meeting'. And then two guys with prods go 'Go over there, there's the door, there's the door, big fella!' The man who can't fucking, you know, gets just, you know he gets a boner whenever he says it 'I am the leader of the free world' needs handlers. He needs somebody between him and me. He is the president, I am Schmucky the Clown!"
    When I first heard this routine, I was a bit puzzled, since I took it to mean – just like you – that handlers are something specific to GWB and I distinctly remember reading about Kennedy's handlers in various accounts of the Cuban Missile Crisis and about Clinton's handlers during the Lewinski scandal and all the others (e.g.).

    Tying it to the present subject, I associate "going rogue" mostly with intelligence agencies and covert operations. Spies go rogue. Spies also have handlers.

  10. marie-lucie said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 6:45 pm

    Thank you, bulbul. I did not know about this comedian or his routine, which seems right on, and I find interesting that the reaction to the word "handlers" comes from such a quarter – the word seems to be now well-established in the press but no less shocking as a concept. How old are the references to previous presidents' handlers? Are they as old as Kennedy's time, or just from works written more recently about the period? And of course there was the first Bush before Clinton, so could the word date from that period?

  11. bulbul said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 7:01 pm


    "The Kennedy Circle" by Lester Tanzer and David Brinkley published in 1961 and available on Google books contains a reference to Kennedy's handlers David Powers and Kenny O'Donnell. Perhaps a peak in the OED would reveal more, unfortunately, I don't have acces to the online version.

  12. marie-lucie said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 7:26 pm

    Well, I am amazed that the word has such a long history with this meaning.

  13. Robert F said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 7:38 pm

    Another example where it is not considered a deterioration is that it is possible for a criminal to "go straight", to cease criminal activity.

  14. Amy said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 10:39 pm

    Thank you!
    I'm no linguist, just a hobbyist at best, so I've never been able to describe objectively why certain formulations simply sound wrong to me. A while back, I was bothered by a post on a similar topic called "Beyond Barking" by Geoffrey Pullum, which discussed why the expression "heading distinctly dagenham" was ungrammatical.

    To "head dagenham" means to go past Barking to Dagenham, referencing stops on the London Tube.
    To "go barking" is short for "to go barking mad".

    If, as Mark Liberman (and apparently William Safire) posit in this post, "go mad" is a modern formation that is perfectly grammatical, when why would Mr Pullum label "head dagenham" as "…a little beyond the syntactic fringe"? What's the difference?

  15. the other Mark P said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 1:03 am

    My local paper had Palin having a ROUGE streak.

  16. Aaron Davies said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 2:26 am

    People used to talk about "going gay". (Whether that's positive or negative depends on perspective, I guess…)

  17. John Cowan said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 3:41 am

    OT: Language Log doesn't seem to ever have talked about you betcha grammatically, though it is distinctly odd. I betcha is just an allegro form of I bet you, as in "I betcha fifty to one Obama wins". But nobody says you bet you, which lacks a reflexive, and even you bet yourself, while grammatically well-formed, is semantically peculiar: people do not, except in the mood of irony, bet with themselves as either stake or opponent. What's going on here?

  18. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 8:52 am

    "Handlers" in this sense is used extensively in British spy fiction, e.g. in the works of John LeCarre and Len Deighton, and I suspect that it originated in the world of espionage. But it seems to me that a handler, to LeCarre, Deighton, and others, is the immediate supervisor of an agent from the enemy side. In "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," the Russian master spy Karla is the handler of a mole lodged within the British secret service. George Smiley has no handlers, but he does have masters, those higher up in the organization who give him instructions.

  19. Neal Goldfarb said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 9:06 am

    Mark L.: It's interesting — but not surprising — that (some) political operatives think of their candidates in the way that others think of robots, animals, elves, and death-squad members: useful but dangerous creatures whose initiative needs to be carefully restrained by programming, training, or magical spells.

    George Lakoff, please phone home.

  20. bulbul said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 9:51 am

    Pardon the OT:

    actually, in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy", Karla is the mole's master – or, as Smiley put it, "the real controller". The mole's actual handler (i.e. immediate superior, contact person) is Colonel Gregor Viktorov a.k.a Soviet embassy's cultural attaché Polyakov.
    Interestingly, the world 'handler' doesn't appear anywhere in the novel. I've always thought this was an American term.

  21. Arnold Zwicky said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 10:23 am

    John Cowan: "OT: Language Log doesn't seem to ever have talked about you betcha grammatically, though it is distinctly odd. I betcha is just an allegro form of I bet you, as in "I betcha fifty to one Obama wins". But nobody says you bet you, which lacks a reflexive …"

    Under the verb bet 'to lay a wager', the OED lists you bet (slang, chiefly in U.S.) 'be assured, certainly' (first cite in 1857), with the variant you bet you, for which there is one cite:

    1910 S. E. WHITE Rules of Game V. xxxiv, ‘He's a quick thinker, then,’ said Bob. ‘You bet you!’

    This is presumably a repetition for emphasis, though I can't think of any close parallels with verbs other than bet.

  22. [links] Link salad for a Sunday | jlake.com said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 10:48 am

    […] Palin's 'going rogue,' McCain aide says — How about that rigorous vetting process, Mr. Straight Talk? (Special bonus, Language Log comments on the usage of the term "going rogue".) […]

  23. Philip Spaelti said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 11:39 am

    though I can't think of any close parallels with verbs other than bet.

    Fuck you?

  24. marie-lucie said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 12:16 pm

    "Thank you". But the point is that only "you bet you" has "you" twice, unlike the other verbs.

  25. sjt said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 1:08 pm

    The OED doesn't give the political sense of "handler", but does have it used in what seems to be the same way in boxing, with earliest citation "1950 J. DEMPSEY Championship Fighting 9: His handlers threw in the towel."

  26. Kenny Easwaran said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 2:43 pm

    Is it possible that the 1910 citation of "you bet you" is just a more respectable spelling for something that would actually have been pronounced "you betcha"? I hadn't even noticed anything odd about "you betcha" until reading John Cowan's comment here, though I would have boggled at "you bet you". My hypothesis is that "I betcha" became a fixed form, with "betcha" reanalyzed as a single lexical item meaning something like "suppose" or "be pretty sure". Then "you betcha" is a natural extension. This process would have already happened by 1910, but the author who is cited would have written it out, just as authors often uncontract contractions in writing. I guess the real test would be if anyone has ever said "he betchas" or something similar.

  27. Don Campbell said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 6:46 pm

    I had always thought that "you betcha" was an abbreviation of "you bet your X", where X could be "house" or "bottom dollar" or similar.

    To me, that is a much more conceivable evolution than from "you bet you", although I could also see the "I betcha" hypothesis above being the case.

  28. John Kingston said,

    October 27, 2008 @ 1:59 am

    As a near-native user of "you betcha", I want to point out the its most common current use where I got it from, Wyoming, is as an alternative to "you're welcome" in responding to "thank you". I have no idea whether this a later extension of its use as 'be assured, certainly', though that strikes me as likely. There's reason to doubt that the repetition of "you" is emphatic, however. If it were, why would it reduce and cliticize onto "bet".

  29. tablogloid said,

    October 27, 2008 @ 11:24 am

    Where does "go-go" fit into all this? Go dance?

  30. Aaron Davies said,

    October 28, 2008 @ 7:09 am

    @ tablogloid, wikipedia's Go-Go dancing article may be of help.

  31. John Cowan said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 11:32 pm

    I think it's quite right that the 1910 occurrence of "you bet you" is a conventionalized spelling of "you betcha", and the theory that "betcha" became a novel stative verb is fairly plausible. I can't believe, however, in the "you bet your X" theory; even if X were to be dropped, there would be the question of what happened to the /r/, which (in an American expression) would remain prominent, there being no trace of /r/ in "you betcha".

  32. John Cowan said,

    April 7, 2009 @ 6:24 pm

    Last night in an English-language online chat with a friend from Spain, I used the phrase tu betchas, which reduced him to hysterics, though not as much as the assertion that in Feynman Portuguese the word for 'but' is consequentamente (later corrected to consecuentemente by a more Portuguese-aware person than myself).

  33. Mark Liberman said,

    November 19, 2009 @ 7:54 am

    On Nov. 14, 2009, "David Gustav Anderson" posted a comment here that I've deleted. Arnold Zwicky quotes and dissects it in a Nov. 16 post "Another go rogue".

  34. go ballistic, go postal « Lex maniac said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 7:21 pm

    […] + adjective construction has a certain appeal. Mark Liberman of Language Log has filed not one, but two posts on the subject. It’s very old; it has been possible to “go mad” for centuries and there […]

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