You wouldn’t think that a year that began with the QAnon shaman standing at the dais in Congress could get more surreal.
And yet last week, there was George W. Bush on live TV, giving a language lesson.
What could President Is-Our-Children-Learning possibly teach viewers of the Today show, which his daughter Jenna Bush Hager cohosts, about language? This is a man whose malapropisms filled at least six books, who gave us nuke-u-lar and misunderestimate, who elevated bungled idioms to a high art.
Nevertheless, George W. Bush has a grammatical pet peeve: the abuse of literally. And it’s not just because Bush wants us to speak properly; it’s part of his masterful image rehabilitation to make him seem like America’s kindly old uncle who does paintings and corrects others’ grammar, and not a guy whose errors, linguistic and otherwise, cost thousands of lives from New Orleans to Afghanistan.
“I just have been on a campaign to get people to use literally less,” Bush said when his daughter cold-called him during her hosting segment on Today last week. Bush knows about campaigns: He had two successful campaigns for president, one of them so successful that he also won the popular vote.
In his literally campaign, Bush is outside the mainstream. Most people who complain about literally object to its usage as a synonym for figuratively, as in, “My mind is literally exploding right now.” (Unless you’ve hit an IED on a road outside Kabul, your mind probably isn’t literally exploding.) Bush doesn’t stop there — he doesn’t want literally used, period. Unless you’re talking about literature, Bush argues, literally is almost always unnecessary.
“It’s misunderstood,” he told Hager on the air. “It’s become a convenient habit.”
He’s not wrong. Most people misuse literally, and even when they’re using it correctly, they could probably do without it.
But as grammatical pet peeves go, literally is a softball. It’s an easy win for, say, someone who’s trying to rehabilitate his image.
“I’m confident there are people who are better wordsmiths than me,” he self-deprecated on Today. “I’m the guy that came up with strategery.”
In those two sentences he managed three errors: than me should have been than I am; I’m the guy that should have been I’m the guy who; and Bush didn’t coin strategery — Saturday Night Live did back in 2000, when it was making fun of him. Rather than being stung by the quip, Bush has misremembered it as his own.
But it’s too easy — dangerously easy — to take shots at Bush’s language. Doing so distracts from the deadlier parts of the 43rd president’s legacy.
Grammatical pet peeves come cheap. Almost anyone who makes it this far into a grammar column has one, whether about mainstream topics (like the Oxford comma) or obscure ones (like the serial comma).
By taking on an easy grammatical win like literally, Bush has continued the methodical whitewashing of his reputation, which jumped from a 33% approval rating at the end of his second term to a 61% approval rating 10 years later.
Correct Bush’s grammar if you must. But don’t let his mastery of one word wipe out the memory of Abu Ghraib and “Mission Accomplished” and the Great Recession. As Bush once said: “Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.”
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and metathesis to email@example.com.