Rarely is the question asked: Is our children
learning?" So go the famous words of George W. Bush, president
of the United States.
"They misunderestimated me," he said.
"I’m more interacting with people," he said.
The list goes on. Most people in America and many across the world
have observed the peculiar speech of President Bush. There are numerous
terms for it: "Bushisms," "Bushlexis," "the
Bush Mouth Disease."
"It’s something we all do, some more than others,"
said Alan Cienki, associate professor of linguistics. "Some
of us do it more under pressure, in spur-of-the-moment situations.
Being a world leader definitely puts you in that high-pressure category."
Cienki has studied Bush’s speech patterns and presented a
lecture titled, "‘They Misunder-estimated Me’:
Insights About ‘Bushisms’ From the Perspective of Cognitive
Linguistics," Wednesday, Oct. 8, in Winship Ballroom.
With published books and even websites dedicated to chronicling
every presidential misspeak, what now exists is a rare set of linguistic
data derived from one person over a number of years.
So why do professors like Cienki study it? For one, Bushisms are
not nonsense; most people understand what was intended, and such
speech is not unique to Bush. There are a number of ways people
warp speech, Cienki said, whether it’s by blending two words
to make one, putting a word in the wrong context or using the wrong
By analyzing the linguistic data that exists from Bush’s documented
speech patterns, linguistics professionals like Cienki now have
a number of examples from which they can study typical types of
Bushisms typically involve the blending of words. For example, Bush
once used the term "revengeful," a combination of "revenge"
and "vengeful." Because language evolves over time, combining
two words to make a new word is a common approach, linguistically.
For instance, Cienki said, the word "smog" is derived
from "fog" and "smoke."
Other times people combine not two words but two phrases. In reference
to his brother, Bush called Jeb the "great governor of Texas."
While he meant "great governor of Florida," he was combining
"great state of Texas" with "governor of Florida."
Another time he said, "I know how hard it is for you to put
food on your family," fusing "put food on your table"
with "provide food for your family."
Such speech may be strange or incorrect, but Cienki said "blends
are a mechanism of creativity and lexical innovation." People
also often substitute more common words for the less common, resulting
in grammatical error. Bush has used "subscribe" in place
of "ascribe" and "tenants" in place of "tenets."
A typical example is when Bush used "preservation" in
place of "perseverance." While speaking in reference to
Perseverance Month, he said, "This is Preservation Month. I
appreciate preservation. It’s what you do when you run for
president. You gotta preserve." Another time he said, "I’m
very gracious and humbled," rather than "grateful."
Then there is Cienki’s favorite Bushism, the so-called "double
Bushism:" "I’ve coined new words, like ‘misunderstanding’
and ‘Hispanically.’" Although "Hispanically"
is not a word, "misunderstanding" is. In this example,
Cienki said, Bush overcompensated; while trying to refer to his
use of "misunderestimating," he corrected himself and
deferred to a proper word.
Because these examples of Bush’s speech patterns are typically
demonstrated in full view of the public, they often are scrutinized,
but Cienki said everyone does it from time to time. Why we do it
and why some of us do it more than others are questions still left
to be answered, he added.
Cienki’s lecture was the first of several upcoming events
hosted by the Program in Linguistics. The next, "Creole Languages
Revisited: A New Look at Morphological and Syntactic Issues,"
will be held Wednesday, Oct. 29, at 4 p.m. in the Winship Ballroom.
For more information, call 404-727-7904.