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One Tweet in the Life of Donald J. Trump

bobcorker

Sen. Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee

 

One day not long ago this emerged from the famously short fingers of the 45th president:

Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 10.27.43 AM
 
Let’s do a close reading, shall we, starting with a fact-check. Is The New York Times failing (or Failing, as Trump designates it with his eccentric capitalization rules)? No. In its most recent quarterly report, the paper recorded an addition of 93,000 digital subscriptions, for a total of 2.3 million. Over all, operating profit for the quarter was $28 million, up from $9 million last year.

Is Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee little? (More on Trump’s rendition of this word in a minute.) Leaving aside the schoolyard-bully spectacle of it, this claim checks out, technically. The GOP senator is 5 feet 7 inches tall, while the average non-Hispanic white American male age 60 or older is 5 feet 9 inches.

Moving to the meat of the tweet, it concerns a Times interview with Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he asserted that Trump treats his office like “a reality show,” that his reckless threats to other countries may have set us “on the path to World War III,” and that “the vast majority” of Republican senators understood “the tremendous amount of work that it takes by people around him to keep him in the middle of the road.”

Trump’s claim that the Times somehow fooled Corker or taped its conversation with him without his knowledge is categorically false. After the tweet, the Times reporter Jonathan Martin posted an audio snippet of Corker saying to aides, who were listening in on the call, “I know they’re recording it, and I hope you are, too.”  One of the aides indeed taped the interview as well.

It’s hard to decide whether to call Trump’s claim on this a lie. He presumably didn’t know that Corker knew he was being recorded, but, rather, just threw out the claim that it was done behind the senator’s back, with a reckless disregard for the truth. Personally, I would call that a lie.

Moving on to stylistic matters, it almost goes without saying that the tweet includes (concludes with, in fact) one of Trump’s trademark superfluous exclamation points, and contains two of his trademark Homeric epithets – Failing and Liddle’. The rendition of that last word is the most striking thing about the tweet. The first question is, why did Trump misspell it? The possibilities that initially occur to me are, one, that he was trying to reproduce characteristic North American flapping of the /t/ sound in little (very unlikely) and, two, that he doesn’t know how to spell the word (pretty unlikely). I am left to surmise that Trump used the ds in an attempt to further diminutize the nickname, by simulating the way a toddler might say it. Thus, if he had taken it one more step, he would have made it “Widdle Bob Corker.”

That leaves the mystifying matter of the apostrophe at the end. Possible explanations, in ascending order of probability, are:

  • Trump used it to indicate an acute accent, as is done in popular African-American names like Andre’ and DeAndre’.
  • Trump’s short fingers typed the apostrophe by mistake, and he didn’t bother to proofread.
  • Trump intended to put “Liddle” in quotation marks — his second favorite punctuational move, after the exclamation points — and forgot or neglected to put in the first quote mark.

There’s one more notable thing about the tweet: the line “was made to sound a fool.” It struck me that the standard American version of this would be “was made to sound like a fool,” while the “like” might be left out, as Trump did, in British English. To find out if I was right, I consulted my go-to source on such matters, the American-born Sussex University linguistics professor Lynne Murphy.

She confirmed my sense and pointed me to a blog post she wrote on the subject in 2009, in which she quoted John Algeo’s book British or American English?

“A group of copular verbs (…) have predominantly adjectival complements in common-core English, but also have nominal subject complements in British more frequently than in American.” In other words, in AmE or BrE, you could say I feel old (because my students told me yesterday that Brad Pitt is ‘a sexy old man’). You could also say I feel like an unsexy geriatric case, because the like phrase in that case plays an adjectival role in the sentence. But in BrE, you can also forgo the like and just go straight to the nouny part of the description. …

Here are some examples showing more of this pattern:

sound: He sounded a complete mess. [Jeremy Clarke in The Independent]

look: Joey Barton has made me look a fool. [Oliver Holt on Mirror.co.uk]

Was Trump trying to sound an Englishman? Or did he inherit the construction from his Scottish-born mother? I doubt it. Possibly he was echoing a common expression found in Twelfth Night (“This fellow is wise enough to play the fool”) and in the classic 1972 soul song “Everybody Plays the Fool.” It was also suggested when I raised the question on Twitter that the “like”-less construction is common in African-American English and/or in the rural South.

But I think I have a more likely explanation. Using “like” would have put Trump’s tweet at 142 characters. So he ditched it.

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