"If someone has no intelligence"

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"McCain: Attempt to defund Obamacare was 'fool's errand'", NBC News 10/16/2013:

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Brian Williams: And how about decorum? You have very nicely passed it off, but recently, Congressman Gohmert of Texas called you an Al Qaeda supporter and it hardly made a blimp [sic] in all the talk.

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John McCain: Well, on that particular issue, uh I- sometimes those are- comments like that are made out of malice, but if someone has no intelligence, uh I don't view it as being a malicious statement; um and you know, you can't respond to that kind of thing.

The phrase "someone has no intelligence" is ambiguous: It can mean "someone is not intelligent", or it can mean "someone has no (access to) secret information about an actual or potential enemy". When I read about Senator McCain's comment, I wondered which one he meant, or whether he might be trying to preserve deniability.

The "no secret information" option is plausible, since Rep. Gohmert's accusation dealt mainly with the sympathies and activities of Syrian opposition groups that Sen. McCain had portrayed in a positive light. And it's possible that Sen. McCain has been briefed on the topic by U.S. intelligence agencies, while Rep. Gohmert has not.

But the "not intelligent" option was chosen by the editor who wrote the headline for Ben Jacobs's article "Gohmert Responds to McCain's Dimwit Dig", The Daily Beast 10/17/2013:

After Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) called Tea Party stalwart Rep. Louie Gohmert “a person of no intelligence” in an interview on NBC Nightly News on Wednesday, the back and forth between the two continued Thursday with Gohmert suggesting that McCain “would be better off with 'no intelligence.'”

In a statement to The Daily Beast, Gohmert said:

"Obviously, Senator McCain would be better off with ‘no intelligence’ since he does not know the Syrian opposition he met with is infested with al Qaeda and terrorist kidnappers. His ‘intelligence’ even caused him to support the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt that burned churches and killed Christians, as the senator stood against the will of the massive majority of Egyptians including moderate Muslims, Christians, and secularists who demanded the Muslim Brotherhood extremist persecutions must end."

If Senator McCain was characterizing Representative Gohmert as low in mental acuity, it wouldn't be the first time that this opinion has been expressed, as the Urban Dictionary entries for Gohmert suggest. Or there's this or this.

But I'm always suspicious of media stereotyping of public figures.  And in this case, it seems to me that Rep. Gohmert would be more accurately characterized not as stupid, but as rhetorically aggressive and unusually unconcerned about logic or truth, even for a politician.

His stereotype may have been strengthened by the similarity of his last name to gomer, which the OED glosses as

1. orig. and chiefly U.S. Mil.

a. An inept or stupid colleague, esp. a trainee; (also) a member of the U.S. Marine Corps.
b. An enemy soldier, an adversary in combat or in combat training; (originally and esp.) a member or supporter of the North Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War.

2. U.S. Among members of the medical profession: a difficult or disagreeable patient, esp. an elderly one.
V. George and A. Dundes, in The Gomer: A Figure of American Hospital Folk Speech, Jrnl. Amer. Folklore 91 571–2, cite (without quoting) an example collected from a nurse in December 1964.

I've always wondered which came first, this range of meanings or the character Gomer Pyle.  The OED's citations are all later than the relevant episodes of the Andy Griffith Show (1962-1964).


  1. Ben Zimmer said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 7:44 am

    Maybe McCain is a fan of Veep? In a Season 2 episode, Secretary of Defense George Maddox says to Vice-President Selina Meyer, "With this hostage situation, I don't think you have the intelligence." Then he clarifies: "As in intel." Line appears 25 seconds into this trailer.

  2. Theophylact said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 8:22 am

    I first came across the medical use of "gomer" in Samuel Shem's The House of God, where it was "explained" as an acronym for "Get Out of My Emergency Room".

  3. Haamu said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 8:44 am

    Gohmert lacks intelligence? Hardly. Among other things, he's a noted zoologist.

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 10:21 am

    Google reveals that this is not the first time that the striking snowclone "hardly made a blimp" has been typed and/or uttered, which for some reason is putting me in a cheerier mood than I had been in earlier in the morning.

  5. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 10:32 am

    For his part, Gohmert (in the block quote above) arguably seems to be using "intelligence" in the "intel" sense, at least if one hypothesizes (which seems plausible in context but not certain) that he's contending that McCain's allegedly over-optimistic view of the nature and intent of some of the allegedly unsavory players on the Egyptian and Syrian scenes is the result of his (just keep inserting "allegedly" as required . . .) uncritical swallowing of unreliable spin-doctor propaganda presented in the form of top-secret intelligence briefings.

  6. GAC said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 11:00 am

    On the military parlance "gomer", I'd actually put my money on it coming from Gomer Pyle, considering that he was an established character before he joined the USMC (and thus couldn't be named to fit the role) and, as you said, all the OED citations come after his enlistment. Even if it was a pre-existing term, Gomer Pyle might have reinforced it.

  7. Rubrick said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 1:50 pm

    @J.W. Brewer: Did you perhaps mean eggcorn, not snowclone?

  8. EndlessWaves said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 5:13 pm

    Blimp is interesting when you consider the possible usage of other lighter than air craft in the same context:

    "He was going for a zepplin, but it hardly made a blimp."

  9. D.O. said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 6:17 pm

    This reminds me about a purported quip from one of the scientific higher-ups in the Soviet nuclear bomb project. "Before [this project], physicists relied on experiment and theory. No we have also information." It can be put even nicer in English (gained in translation?) "Before, physicists relied on experiment and theory. Now we also use intelligence."

  10. J Lee said,

    October 19, 2013 @ 11:35 pm

    from some of myl's evidence of this guy's stupidity:

    Just days ago, the U.S. House voted to remove the archaic word “lunatic” from federal laws referring to the mentally ill. The vote was 398-1. And of course you know who that one was. Gohmert said he thinks the word is still perfectly fine — especially for those in Washington favoring “business as usual.”

    it is perfectly fine. if he were my rep i would find some value in a symbolic vote against further language policing, if only because it can hardly be a priority.
    dick cheney was one of 4 to vote against the ban on so-called 'plastic guns' that have never existed even in theory.

    when kobe called the referee a 'f*ckin faggot' he was fined $100,000 and had to go through the disgusting bizarre public ritual we have in america where one goes to 'dialogue with Leaders of the ______ Community' as if his phrase (probably used 100 times in every pickup game in the country) was clear evidence of homophobic attitudes rather than a word that has widened its scope to include any 'jerk'.

    if there are posts that discusses using evidence from the field of semantics to influence the public debate parallel to syntax debunking the concept of 'primitive' langauges, please direct me

  11. J Lee said,

    October 19, 2013 @ 11:41 pm

    The phrase "someone has no intelligence" is ambiguous: It can mean "someone is not intelligent"

    not idiomatically, so there goes the ambiguity. talk about filling column inches…

  12. Alan Palmer said,

    October 21, 2013 @ 7:42 am

    It has to be mentioned, so here goes:

    Example of an oxymoron:
    Military intelligence.

  13. Graeme said,

    October 22, 2013 @ 4:42 pm

    Isn't the clue here McCain saying 'you can't respond to that kind of thing'? In politics you have to respond to unfair criticism – except where that requires you to reveal confidences. And to Military Man McCain, no confidence is bigger than a national security briefing.

  14. Ikiru said,

    October 24, 2013 @ 11:02 am

    J Lee: Who is kobe? My knowledge of linguistics is still very much at the 101 stage, so I'm eager to hear about new scholars.

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