Thursday, October 2, 2008

lapsus linguae S. Palinis

The slips of the tongue of Sarah Palin.

Like a nervous 5th-grader overwhelmed by the bright lights of the elementary school auditorium, Gov. Sarah Palin visibly wracked her brain to recall long-rehearsed lines. In the midst of a semi-coherent, rambling delivery of well-known GOP talking points in her folksy, down-home and painfully irritating accent (although authentic), she managed to stutter her way, twice, to a particularly ignorant semantic error.

The culprit was the word attribute, the semantics of which she twice fails to grasp.

Here is Palin (via NYT, complete transcript):
I'm not one to attribute every man -- activity of man to the changes in the climate. There is something to be said also for man's activities, but also for the cyclical temperature changes on our planet.
And again:
And it is my executive experience that is partly to be attributed to my pick as V.P. with McCain, not only as a governor, but earlier on as a mayor, as an oil and gas regulator, as a business owner.
Attribute comes directly from Latin attribuere, a compound of ad + tribuere, and so literally, "to assign to." And so from the OED, it comes to mean in English:
To ascribe, impute, or refer, as an effect to the cause; to reckon as a consequence of.

1530 PALSGR. 440/1, I attrybute, I ascrybe the cause of a mater to one cause or other, J'attribue. 1626 DK. BUCKHM. in Ellis Orig. Lett. I. 329 III. 234, I cannot attribute this honour to any desert in me. 1794 SULLIVAN View Nat. I. 39 To the deluge he attributed the changes of the earth. 1876 GREEN Short Hist. vi. §1 (1882) 268 The shrivelled arm of Richard the Third was attributed to witchcraft.

Palin's mistake is the reversal of cause and effect. Attribute assigns result X to cause Y, e.g. I would attribute the horse's victory (X) to his speed and endurance (Y). Palin's muddled discourse consistently mixes it up, assigning cause X to result Y.

This seems a very strange mistake to me, but perhaps it is not so uncommon. What is uncommon, however, is the general stupidity of both statements. Do we really want someone a heartbeat away from presidency of the United States who doesn't believe in global warming?

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