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It’s been a while between posts for me, so let me make up for it with one big one. Tucker Carlson (who Wikipedia tells me no longer wears a bowtie) got onto Sean Hannity’s show recently and declared that Michael Vick ought to have been executed for running a dogfighting ring.

(The backstory for the non-football-obsessed reader: Vick was a star quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons until the dogfighting ring came to light. He served 21 months in prison and filed bankruptcy as a result, and lost three years in the prime of his career. He’s since revived his career with the Philadelphia Eagles, and President Obama called the Eagles’ owner to commend him on giving Vick a chance to prove he was rehabilitated. It was this call that riled up Carlson.)

Eventually, word got back to Carlson that his position sounded a bit unwise, and he re-appeared on Hannity’s show to clarify that he does not actually believe what he had said. His clarification:

This is what happens when you get too emotional. I’m a dog lover, I love them and — I know a lot about what Michael Vick did — I overspoke. I’m uncomfortable with the death penalty in any circumstance. Of course, I don’t think he should be executed, but I do think that what he did is truly appalling.”

Now, there’s a reasonable question to be asked here: should a man who claimed that Vick should never be forgiven, never even be given a chance to earn our forgiveness, be forgiven if he says that his hard-line stance was the result of saying something more than he mean to? Personally, I’m fine with forgiving Carlson, if for no other reason than that his Vick comments weren’t nearly the most offensively foolish things I’ve heard him say. (This willingness to forgive is part of why Carlson and I disagree politically.) I also have to give him credit for actually taking some blame; he didn’t claim he was taken out of context or that his opponents were trying to vilify him. He admitted that he said something that is not an accurate indication of his feelings. I have to offer my begrudging respect for that.

But not everyone is in a forgiving mood, and I’m sorry to say that they don’t all have a good argument for their intransigence. Specifically, Sherry Coven at Everything Language and Grammar has written a post complaining about Carlson’s use of overspoke, which she considers an incomprehensible coinage. She writes:

“Overspoke? I’m not sure what overspoke means.”

Really? Let’s pretend for a moment that we are back in third grade. If your education was anything like mine, the watchwords of reading class back then were context clues. When you encountered a word you didn’t know, you were supposed to look at the rest of the sentence, or the rest of the paragraph, and try to figure out what the word meant. So let’s try this with Carlson’s paragraph. First he says “I overspoke”, and then he says “Of course, I don’t think he should be executed, but I do think that what he did is truly appalling.” That suggests to me that I overspoke means “I said something that was much stronger than my true position.”

And, as it turns out, Coven guesses that this is the definition that Carlson intends, writing “The most logical assumption is that he meant that he’d said too much.” Good job! But then, like a child who you’ve assigned an undesired chore will impishly stare at the necessary tools in affected ignorance, as though they couldn’t possibly figure out how this rake could be used to move leaves into a pile, she too feigns ignorance. I can picture her exaggeratedly throwing up her hands, showing how impossible it is to understand this new word, as she writes, “But in that sense, what was too much? Did he think that he’d used too many words?”

C’mon, Coven, stop playing dumb. If you’re really having trouble with this one, you have absolutely no business writing about the English language, and especially not doing so on a blog called “Everything Language and Grammar”. But let’s say you’re really, honestly trying and just can’t crack the case. In that case, our third-grade reading classteacher could offer a second plan of attack: if context clues don’t help, look the word up in a dictionary. Alas, that didn’t help Coven:

“This is yet another example of the disconnect that can occur between speaker and listener when the speaker makes up a word instead of using perfectly good veteran words that are part of the English language. Even dictionary.com, which has never met a non-word it hasn’t liked, doesn’t embrace overspoke (yet).”

Yeah, I checked on dictionary.com. It’s true that searching for overspoke doesn’t return anything. Instead, it asks if maybe you meant to search for overspeak. And when I told it that I did in fact mean to search for that, here’s what it told me:

O`ver*speak”\, v. t. & i. [AS. ofersprecan.] To exceed in speaking; to speak too much; to use too many words.
Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.

If you’ll pardon another analogy, at this point I have to liken Coven to the fumblefingers in infomercials (pictured below).

Coven’s use of the dictionary seems akin to these fumblefingers’ use of eggs, ironing boards, and other everyday objects. She looks up an inflected form of a rare irregular verb — when any reasonable dictionary user looks up the infinitive form — and then gives up because she’d have to click on a link saying “Did you mean Overspeak?” in order to get to the definition.

But if she powered through these hurdles, she’d have seen that the word isn’t new; the copyright information dates it back to at least 1998. And a little bit more research (this time on Google Books) shows that it goes back much further. Here it is in a story from 1957. Here it is in a racist joke from 1910-1911. Here it is in a German-English dictionary from 1883.

And that still doesn’t bring us back to the inception of overspeak. The OED attests it back to the 17th century, with the definitions “to overstate or exaggerate, to make exaggerated claims for, to speak too strongly, to speak too much”. Hell, the OED even notes Carlson’s exact type of usage in a 2001 example:

“The three e-mails I received‥agreed that Falwell overspoke himself in the worst way.”

Coven closes with this thought:

“Carlson seemed to be making up a word in order to avoid taking responsibility for a radical opinion. Instead of saying I overspoke, he should have said what he meant—–whatever that was.”

The operative word here is seemed. It seemed to Coven that Carlson made up a word, even though a quick cursory search of Google Books or the Oxford English Dictionary (which, for crying out loud, is even having a free trial for the month) could have told her that Carlson was using a rare word in one of its standard meanings. But Coven’s too busy reprimanding Carlson to bother to see if he’s right. Mark Liberman, by comparison, initially guessed the same — that Carlson has invented a word in overspeak — but before writing a post about it, actually checked to see if his impression was correct. It wasn’t, and he ended up writing an informative post about the history of overspeak and its relationship to AAVE and Southern American English.

The lesson: never trust your instincts when you’re writing about someone’s speech. You’ll surely overspeak if you do.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, a graduate student/doctoral candidate in Linguistics at UC San Diego. I have a Bachelor's in math from Princeton and a Master's in linguistics from UCSD.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible.

I focus on learning problems that have traditionally been viewed as difficult, such as combining multiple information sources or learning without negative data or ungrammatical examples. My dissertation models how children can use multiple cues to segment words from child-directed speech, and how phonological constraints can be inferred based on what children do and don't hear adults say.



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