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Posted at 12:16 PM ET, 10/24/2011

Rick Perry’s distractive birther language


Thank you for listenizing. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Rick Perry’s relationship with the English language, never close, has been somewhat strained lately.

Perry has come close to slipping the surly bonds of conventional English. But he’s not quite there yet.

“Come on,” Sarah Palin whispers. “Refudiate all this and let’s get out of here. Shakespeare did it.”

“I am trying,” Perry seems to say. But he’s still abiding by the rules — perhaps in spite of himself.

His latest hair’s-breadth ’scape came with the remark — on the authenticity of the president’s birth certificate — that “I don’t have any idea. It doesn’t matter. He’s the president of the United States. He’s elected. It’s a distractive issue.”

Distractive is a good first step. It has all the fake word characteristics — familiar beginning, strange but common end. It bodes well for the future — meanery. Obscurize. Intellectivizate.

The only trouble with “distractive” is that it’s technically a real word. This is a problem Rick Perry has been having a lot lately. He’s the Mrs. Malaprop of the GOP field.

Some candidates make up words. Rick Perry makes up words that already exist. He hits on preexisting words that all sound a little off, in context. Treacherous? Treasonous? Potato, potatoe, as Dan Quayle would say.

The trouble with speaking English as the rest of us speak it is that words, as Mitt Romney says, have meaning. Choose one word instead of another, and you have to spend the rest of your campaign either pointedly not apologizing to Ben Bernanke or pointing out that the rock was painted over years ago.

Distractive? According to Dictionary.com, it exists. Which might be a pity. The two things most calculated to endear you to a certain brand of voter are: Question the authenticity of the president’s birth certificate and make up a new word. A healthy disrespect for the rules of the English language is refreshing. It shows who’s boss.

Most of those rules were invented by twerps in the 18th century who had gotten bored of shooting small animals with guns and wanted to waste their afternoons pondering word endings. There is an anecdote about Noah Webster. His wife arrived home one afternoon and found him in flagrante delicto with another woman. “Noah, I’m surprised,” she said. “No, my dear,” he said. “You are amazed. It is we who are surprised.”

Use a preexisting word, and people can tell you you’re wrong. And that has been Perry’s Achilles heel so far. Whoever said words can’t hurt you never drove past that hunting camp.

So disgusted is the English language with what Perry has been doing that it makes a point of walking out on him at debates, leaving him to strut and fret upon the stage until the buzzer sounds, heavy on the sound, high on the fury, seeming unsure what it all signifies.

Perry needs to ditch this language, pronto. Words have meaning. But non-words? They mean what you want them to mean. Why confine yourself to real, recognizable words that other people can point to in the dictionary? It’s so limiting. Make up your own, and no one can touch you.

Perry’s not there yet. He is still hacking through the linguistic undergrowth, until finally, he will emerge, an infinitive split and bleeding in his hands, wild gerunds yapping at his heels, mangled participles dangling around his neck, to join Sarah Palin and Shakespeare on the neologistic other side.

Distractive? Close, but no refudiate.

Perhaps we’ve been misunderestimating him.

By  |  12:16 PM ET, 10/24/2011

 
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