I used to chuckle at "Bushspeak," that peculiar way with the English language that some say makes the president sound like a down-home fella.

When he'd make up words such as "misunderestimate" or leave out words altogether -- "I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family" -- no one made much of a fuss.

Now that the nation is on the verge of war, I am not so amused anymore. These are times that call for an articulate president, if not an eloquent one. Bushspeak just doesn't cut it.

"The war on terror involves Saddam Hussein, the history of Saddam Hussein and his willingness to terrorize himself," the president said last month to an audience in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Expressing his resolve to "smoke out" terrorists, Bush told a gathering in Oklahoma City last year, "There's no cave deep enough for America, or dark enough to hide."

Of course, I get his drift -- the same as I do when my teenage son mumbles. But Bush is not just somebody's kid. He is commander in chief. And his lack of command of English raises questions about the brain that is supposed to be in charge of his words.

"There's an old saying in Tennessee -- I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee -- that says, 'Fool me once, shame on -- shame on you. Fool me -- you can't get fooled again,' " Bush said in Nashville last year.

If, say, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell messed up words that way, he'd be fired on the spot, not that he would have been hired in the first place.

During his televised news conference Thursday, Bush told the nation: "We're still in the final stages of diplomacy. I'm spending a lot of time on the phone talking to fellow leaders." But not long after that, he said, "For those who urge more diplomacy, I would simply say that diplomacy hasn't worked."

The next day, I asked Ovetta Harris, head of the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Howard University, to shed some light on what might be going on inside Bush's head.

"From a theoretical perspective, there are some speech patterns that are characteristic of neurological disorders and some that are not," she said, adding that her observations were about speech patterns and not necessarily about Bush.

Pausing at length while making off-the-cuff remarks, as Bush did frequently during the news conference, may simply show a lack of confidence in public speaking, Harris said, but not a lack of confidence in what is being said.

Other unusual styles may be "learned articulation patterns" picked up from parents or regional ways of speaking.

Nevertheless, Bush seems to be right up there with Dan Quayle when it comes to verbal garble. Among recent presidents, he is certainly without peer when it comes to blowing a thought.

Before an audience in Manchester, N.H., Bush spoke of how determined America was to take down Hussein. He said: "I was proud the other day when both Republicans and Democrats stood with me in the Rose Garden to announce their support of a clear statement of purpose: You disarm, or we will."

People who communicate ineffectively, regardless of the cause, tend not to be persuasive, Harris said. So the results of a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll published in February should not have come as a surprise: When asked whether they trust Bush or Powell more when it comes to U.S. policy on Iraq, 24 percent of the respondents said Bush, and 63 percent said Powell.

Of course, the trust poll was taken before most people learned that Powell had unwittingly used fake documents in making his case for war before the United Nations.

Speaking recently at a Boys and Girls Club in Washington, Bush noted the presence of Alma Powell, wife of the secretary of state, by saying, "and most importantly, Alma Powell, secretary of Colin Powell, is with us."

It's been said by U.S. military officials that their bombs will leave Iraq in a state of "shock and awe" soon after the war starts. Bush's words have already done that to me.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com