Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I wish I had calibrated my words differently

"I wish I had calibrated my words differently", said Obama, after saying that the police "acted stupidly" by arresting someone who had let his ego overcome his common sense.

Obama misuses his words about as often as his predecessor, but because he choose Latinate words, and because the watchers of his words tend to be enamored of his style, they fail to properly parse what he actually says. The word calibrate was wrong. One calibrates measuring instruments. One precisely adjusts tools and machines so that they work properly. That is calibration.

To some of us, words mean what they mean and not what we wish them to mean. We use them to express ourselves, albeit sometimes with less precision than we'd like. But to others, words are meant to be twisted and meaning is meant to be distorted for personal advantage.

Am I the only one who finds this abhorrent? I think not. I hope not. The low esteem in which journalists, lawyers and salesmen often find themselves, is testament to the unpopularity of twisting words. "Weasels" we will say, recalling an animal with uncanny skill at bending and twisting its very body to elude capture.

Obama might have said, "I wish I had chosen my words differently" (which is probably what he meant to say, but hoped to sound more intelligent by using the longer, Latin word "calibrated"). He could have said, "I wish I had calibrated my meaning differently", as he could have used words to adjust his meaning or to express a slightly different intention.

Or he could have said, "I wish I had phrased it differently", "I misspoke", or "I spoke rashly", or "I spoke before talking to the cop", or "I wrongly assumed the world would be interested in my ignorant opinion on this or any other trivial matter."

But he didn't. He looks at words as malleable in meaning and devised to calibrate our perception of him. This is canny in a politician or anyone else whose primary job is to manipulate people. However, a statesman is concerned first about the effect of his actions and secondarily about his words. This is why many of us admire W despite his infamous malaprops. It is why we often hear the word "Trumanesque", but never the word "Eisenhowerian" (or hear the word "Clintonian" to mean one who thinks he can spin his way out of anything).

It is why some of us watch plain-spoken Sarah Palin and rejoice. It is why thousands of intellectuals look at her and wince. She lacks polish, but she seems to speak from her heart and that is a welcome change, and quite a contrast to her President.

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