Friday, February 18, 2005

Misunderestimating "Misunderestimate"

I rather like "misunderestimate," a word that George W. Bush apparently coined. Exactly when he first used it remains a bit of a mystery. To judge from this Snopes.com analysis of "Make the Pie Higher," a very funny (but alas, non-rhyming) poem made entirely of Bush malapropisms, he began using it as early as November 13, 2000. While I don't pretend that Bush intended to come up with a good new word, I think he stumbled across a keeper.

You won't fully appreciate "misunderestimate" unless you work out what it means. I daresay that I'm the first person to do so. Most people don't take the word seriously enough to make that effort. The one source I've found that attempts to define "misunderestimate" botches the task by confusing the word's meaning with the way people use it to mock President Bush. It defines "misunderestimate" as "To be excessively underestimated to the point of being ignored or ridiculed." It also, incredibly, classifies it as an adjective! I thus think I can safely discount that authority.

How to I define the word? I simply take it to combine "misunderstand" with "underestimate." One who misunderestimates his subject thus both fails to comprehend it and, consequently, to fully predict its ramifications.

As such, "misunderestimate" represents a valuable addition to the American (a label I use advisedly) language. Allow me to demonstrate how it neatly wraps two related but distinct concepts into one neat word:

Those who discount "misunderestimate" as a mere slip of the tongue misunderestimate Bush's neologism.

10 comments:

Glen Whitman said...

I would tend to interpret the word more literally. Putting 'mis-' in front of a verb usually means doing incorrectly something that can be done correctly. It might seem that an underestimation is already incorrect, which is why 'misunderestimate' has garnered so much ridicule. But there are times when you really *want* to underestimate something -- such as, for instance, when you're guessing the age of someone you want to flatter. Example: Suppose you wish to flatter a woman who appears to be 30. So you say she looks 27 -- but it turns out she's 23. In that case, I would say you misunderestimated her age.

gt said...

That would be missunderestimating.

JB said...

I find 29 to always be a good guess when it comes to guessing ages. Seems like people younger than 29 don't mind being thought of as a little older, while those older like being thought of as just that much younger. My own personal theory is that 29 holds a kind of youthful maturity to it. At least that's my story and I'm sticking to it. (Of course this is really only useful when the individual appears to be in that 25-40 range). Otherwise, for younger people one should just overestimate, and underestimate for the older.

Tom W. Bell said...

Glen: We already have a very handy tool for conveying extreme underestimation: An adjective! To wit: "really underestimate" or "like, totally, underestimate." Reading "misunderestimate" to as you do thus doesn't add much to our language. Contrarywise, we don't have a very handy way to efficiently convey the subtle meaning that I ascribe to the word.

Also, if you read the transcript that the Snope's analysis quotes, I think you will see that Bush was in fact trying to say something like, "My critics misunderstand and underestimate my administration." Note that when he corrected himself, Bush did not say, "My critics *really* underestimate my administration."

I don't aim only at increasing the efficiency of American, however; I also aim at increasing its power to amuse. Just think of all the new words we could create using the "AB + BC = ABC" template that I used in interpreting "misunderestimate"!

bankrupt + rupture = bankrupture (explosively destructive financial insovlency)

asylum + luminary = asyluminary (haven for notables)

warefare + farewell = welfarewell (social service reform)

I'll bet that your brother has a name for that sort of neologism.

Glen Whitman said...

1. Words formed by "smooshing" other words together are called 'portanteaus.' Lewis Carroll was a master of them. For instance, he coined 'chortle' as a portmanteau of snort and chuckle.

2. I agree that my interpretation of the word is not consistent with the coiner's intention. But I also think you misunderstand my meaning! I'm not simply saying "really underestimate." Indeed, the situation that I describe is one in which you fail to underestimate *enough*.

GT -- huh? To my knowledge, 'miss-' is not a prefix in the English language, while 'mis-' is.

gt said...

Feeble attempt at humour, with a minor premise that the woman you want to flatter is single.
"I think you misunderestimate how a vacant lot becomes a park" - I was using the term in Tom's sense. The Glen sense is a fine new secondary meaning for the term, that is really precise and elegant, when it fits, but is unimportanteau compared to Tom's primary definition. gt, aka,
arbitrary aardvark

Glen Whitman said...

Oops -- typo in 'portmanteau.'

Tom W. Bell said...

Glen: Thanks for the info. I've got a post about that, which I'll pop up later.

You're right, I did misunderstand your meaning. Sorry. I just misread you. But do you really ever want to underestimate something? At the least, your hypothetical seems to indicate not a desire to underestimate, but rather a desire to *misrepresent* your actual estimate. In which event, I suppose, calling 27 a 23-year-old who looks 30 would represent a case of an "under misrepresented estimation," or a "misunderepresented overestimation" (or, less amusingly, simply an "overestimation").

Boaz said...

I don't think Bush's original usage was intended as a portmanteau of misunderstand and underestimate. We may disagree about his actual intellect, but I don't think there is any question he lacks such verbal cleverness. I think he originally meant simply to underestimate.

Among those who admire him, the term now means to cockily underestimate another at one's own peril. Among those who mock him, the term now means to underestimate another because he seems so evidently stupid. In certain cases, including the original usage, these meanings can overlap.

Benjabean said...

Try "not unconscionable" as an adjective. Or, per the practice of being "literary" by truncating adverbs by cutting off the "ly", why not consider its potential as an adverb? Then, I speculate, the use might be "Bush's new word was allowed to lie misunderestimated(ly) underscoring the callowness of the vast right-wing conspiracy." I see this as reprobate and I apologize for recapping, ascerbic(ly).