The saying “A stopped clock is right twice a day” is popular lately, perhaps because we have a president who might possibly be bested by a broken clock in tests of intelligence, sophistication, and sensitivity. (According to the Quote Investigator, Joseph Addison originated the maxim back in 1711, with slightly different phrasing.)
Once in a while, through the stopped-clock formula, Trump is right. And though his vocabulary is spectacularly limited, once in a while he perpetrates actual eloquence. That happened last month, when, in a conference with Republican members of the House of Representatives, he described the health-care bill they had passed as “mean.” Now, if you were being harsh to Trump, you would say that the word was an example of his Sesame Street vocabulary — similar to the way, this week, he described North Korea’s behavior as “very, very bad.” After all, when little kids are crossed or don’t get their way, “mean” is what they commonly complain their antagonist is being. In the Beatles’ 1968 cartoon Yellow Submarine, the Blue Meanies are (I quote Wikipedia) “a fictional army of fierce, if buffoonish, music-hating creatures. … They allegorically represent all the bad people in the world.”
Be that as it may, mean is a great word for both the House and Senate versions of the health-care bill. Barack Obama, a legitimately eloquent president, posted on Facebook that at the core of the latter was a “fundamental meanness.”
True to childlike form, Trump complained that Obama was copying him. “Well, he used my term, ‘mean,’” the president said on Fox & Friends. “That was my term because I want to see — and I speak from the heart — that’s what I want to see. I want to see a bill with heart.”
The adjective mean first shows up in a 1375 citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, with the definition “inferior in rank or quality; unpleasant.” New connotations appeared in due course (as well as such expressions as “mean-spirited” and “mean streets”):
Unimposing or shabby; characterized by poverty; humble.
Of a person, a person’s character, etc.: lacking moral dignity, ignoble; small-minded.
Stingy, miserly. [Especially appropriate for health-care legislation.]
U.S. colloq. to feel mean: to feel ashamed of one’s conduct; to feel guilty of unfairness or unkindness. (“[She] tucked me in, and mothered me so good I felt mean.” —Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)
Good writers exploited the richness of the adjective, as did the greatest writer. In As You Like It, Celia says, “I’ll put myself in poor and mean attire.” In Henry IV, Part I, the King throws shade on Henry’s “inordinate and low desires,/Such poor, such bare, such lewd, such mean attempts,/Such barren pleasures, rude society.” In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo plays on the word in his sarcastic complaint to Friar Lawrence that he would rather be murdered than sent away from his beloved: “Hadst thou no poison mix’d, no sharp-ground knife,/No sudden mean of death, though ne’er so mean,/But ‘banished’ to kill me?—’banished’?”
Roughly the same time, a writer of the King James edition of the Bible had Paul describe himself as “a citizen of no mean city.”
Another great writer, Dickens, repeatedly employed at least two senses of the word in his last novel, Our Mutual Friend. The obvious one is that the Boffins and other members of the nouveaux-riche are frequently described as “living above their means.” More subtle is the adjective, which wends its way through the book, turning up again and again as a limiting and destructive quality in people and society: more or less the opposite of all Dickens values. Rogue Riderhood describes Gaffer Hexam as “so mean, so underhanded.” The narrator laments about one incident that “The mean man had, of course, got the better of the generous man.” The schoolmaster Bradley Headstone accuses Eugene Wrayburn: “In the meanness of your nature you revile me with the meanness of my birth.”
The meanest character of all is the moneylender Fascination Fledgeby: “the meanest cur existing, with a single pair of legs. And instinct (a word we all clearly understand) going largely on four legs, and reason always on two, meanness on four legs never attains the perfection of meanness on two.” When he speaks, he has “the meanest of twinkles in his meanest of eyes: which were too near together, by the way.” Alfred Lammle sees in Fledgeby “the meanness that was fain to have the meanest help, and yet was so mean as to turn upon it.” Dickens compares him to his employee, the noble Jew Mr. Riah: “though he looked shabby he did not look mean. Now, Fledgeby, though not shabby, did look mean.”
The way Trump used the word — OED definition “colloq. (orig. U.S.). Of a person, a person’s actions, etc.: disobliging, uncooperative; unpleasant, unkind; vicious, cruel”– does not show up till 1841. We see it in the great phrase mean streak (we all know someone with one of those), in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel (“Get out of here. … It’s that accursed licker that makes you so mean”), in the 1929 song “Mean to Me,” with poignant lyrics overshadowed by the jazzy tune:
You’re mean to me
Why must you be mean to me?
Gee, honey, it seems to me
You love to see me crying’.
When Trump said the House bill was mean, was he aware of and deploying the word’s rich history? Or was he only conscious of the “unkind” definition, and inadvertently achieving a stopped-clock eloquence?
The question answers itself.