Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Does 'misspeak' mean lying?


Hillary Clinton says she was "misspeaking" when she incorrectly recalled her trip to Bosnia. Is this a euphemism?

After Donald Rumsfeld's "unknown unknowns", it's time to untangle another piece of US politics-speak. Or should that be misspeak?

When Hillary Clinton corrected her description of a visit to Bosnia in 1996, she made an interesting choice of words: "I did misspeak the other day."

Her initial version of events was that her plane landed under fire and she had to duck and run to her vehicle.

But television footage shows her disembarking with a smile, waving to the crowd and strolling across the tarmac to greet a little girl who read her a poem.
The word "misspeak" has a long and varied history, says John Simpson, chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

"It goes back to the Old English period before the Norman Conquest to mean to murmur or grumble.

"But it's got quite a wide sense of meanings, to speak insultingly or improperly or to speak disparagingly or disrespectfully or to speak evil of. Then in the mid to late Middle Ages, it was to pronounce incorrectly."

Chaucer used it in the Miller's Tale - "If that I mysspeke or seye" - as meaning to speak insultingly. But nearly all these meanings are mostly obsolete, according to the OED.

The most common modern sense of "misspeak" is in the US, where it has developed two meanings since the late 19th Century - to speak unclearly or to fail to tell the whole truth, says Mr Simpson. And it crossed the Atlantic in the mid 20th Century.

Fiona Douglas, a lecturer in English language at the University of Leeds, says the origins of the modern meanings go back to before 1393, when poet John Gower penned Confessio Amantis.

"The modern senses all have to do with unclear speaking and incorrect or misleading communication.

"The citations suggest that this 'misspeaking' can be deliberate or unintentional, conscious or unconscious - hence it's quite interesting to speculate exactly what Hillary Clinton's use of the word actually meant."

Bush gaffe

US politicians have used it before to correct themselves.

In 2004, President George W Bush accidentally said: "They [our enemies] never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people - and neither do we."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan responded by saying: "Even the most straightforward and plain-spoken people misspeak."

There are also references by Ronald Reagan's staff using it and recently John McCain admitted "misspeaking" after mistakenly saying Iran was arming al-Qaeda.

It's no accident that politicians have grasped for this phrase, says Cormac McKeown, one of the editors of Collins English Dictionary. They often do so when they don't want to say they told a deliberate untruth.

"It can mean to fluff one's lines, like an actor would, but it can also mean to speak erroneously or hastily without thinking, without giving it proper thought, so Clinton is relying on this ambiguity between the two meanings because then she can't really be proved wrong.

"But it's a stretch of the imagination that it was a slip of the tongue because it was quite a long and involved story that went on for about five minutes.

"So if pressed she might say she was referring to the second meaning but she's hoping the first meaning carries through in people's minds."

Choosing this word is a terrible mistake, says lexicographer Tony Thorne.


"She's in danger of doing what Bill Clinton did in redefining sexual relations.

"She's redefining telling the truth because 'misspeaking' is a euphemism for not telling the truth. It's the language of bamboozling, which US politicians and the US military love and get away with."

The word does fill a lexical gap, says Mr Thorne, because alternative ways of saying it are so long-winded, like "I made a mistake, I got it wrong" or "I used the wrong word", but don't expect to hear it in the streets any time soon.

"She's chosen a short, sharp soundbite word but like 'known unknown' it will probably only be used ironically or mockingly."

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