William Gladstone, the shrewd Victorian-era prime minister of the United Kingdom, once called political speech “the art of saying nothing in many words.” Today’s major candidates try to perfect that art by staying relentlessly “on message.” That’s why media coverage of the early presidential campaign season so often focuses on gaffes, mistakes, and malapropisms.
And for good reason. Campaign gaffes can produce real news. Former New Republic Editor Michael Kinsley famously defined a gaffe as a statement that inadvertently revealed something true—such as views or policy plans that the politician would prefer to obscure. Kinsley’s definition sprang out of reporting on a 1984 event at which President Ronald Reagan admitted to considering getting rid of the tax deduction on home mortgages.
Substantive mistakes, as when President Gerald Ford argued in 1976 that Poland wasn’t dominated by the Soviet Union, get pounced on because they can be proven wrong with facts, and they challenge candidates to explain and justify themselves. Careful rehearsals of talking points have mostly eliminated these in recent years, though Texas Gov. Rick Perry didn’t do himself any favors in 2012 when he forgot one of his points during an early Republican debate—the “oops” moment that came to define Perry’s candidacy.
But the least consequential and most delightful campaign goofs are malapropisms, where a candidate gets tangled up in language and syntax and says something unintentionally funny. For example, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said in February that one of his top priorities was “reforming a broken immigration system and turning it into an economic—a catalytic converter for sustained economic growth.” Few would think that Bush didn’t know the difference between the metaphor of a catalyst (a chemical agent of change) and the automobile exhaust device, but the mistake was worthy of his famously inarticulate brother, the much misunderestimated President George W. Bush.
A month earlier, when former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s teleprompter failed during a speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit, she soldiered on, urging her audience to rise to the defense of fellow conservatives: “And we don’t sit on our thumbs this time when one of our own is being crucified and falsely accused of whatever the hip accusation of the day happens to be, right?” This is what’s known as a portmanteau malapropism, awkwardly fusing two related words or ideas—in this case the expressions “sit on our hands” (do nothing) and “twiddle our thumbs” (waste time). The comment did little to refudiate perceptions that Palin is America’s current champion malapropagandist.
Nor are Democrats immune to malapropisms. Boston’s former mayor, the late Thomas Menino, was famous for them, notably lamenting that parking problems in the city were “an Alcatraz around my neck.” And Vice President Joe Biden, often mentioned as a potential challenger to Hillary Clinton, once introduced his boss as “a man I’m proud to call my friend. A man who will be the next president of the United States—Barack America!”
The candidates most likely to commit malapropisms tend to be those who cultivate a folksy, plain-spoken image that insulates them from charges of elite intellectualism. Biden is a good example, even though he’s a well-educated lawyer. By way of contrast, politicians such as Clinton and Barack Obama, also lawyers, cultivate a more wonkish, academic image, choosing their words precisely and rarely stumbling over them. We may admire their precision, but they’re not as much fun to read and write about.
This summer much attention has focused on the candidacy of celebrity businessman Donald Trump, who cultivates the image of a no-nonsense boss. Trump is not known for malapropisms, and has seemed unafraid of gaffes and mistakes that would damage other candidates. So far, courting controversy has worked for him: His poll standing has risen despite impolitic comments on immigration and the patriotism of rivals.
Indeed, Trump’s fearless insistence that he is right on all points, and his scorn of the need to apologize or correct himself, is in its own way “saying nothing in so many words.” He makes no attempt to explain his assertions with detailed policies, and seeks to shut down the conversation by sheer force of personality.
In a sense, Trump’s attitude is his policy—a stance that appeals to many potential voters who are unimpressed by carefully reasoned debate. He is, to borrow a phrase from the English playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan (from whose character, Mrs. Malaprop, we get the word malapropism), “as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.”
Plenty of Americans seem to like that in a politician.
Robert Alden Rubin is the author of Going to Hell in a Hen Basket: An Illustrated Dictionary of Modern Malapropisms (Flatiron Books, 2015). He teaches writing in Raleigh, North Carolina.