October 20, 2003

‘Bushisms’ from a linguistic view

By Elizabeth Cloud

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 verb tense.

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 verbal blunders.

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.