Monday, July 16, 2007

Murphy's law in action

Sunday on Meet the Press (15 July 2007) Tim Russert asked about "The Bill factor"--How Hillary's chances are affected by her husband's growing visibility on her campaign.

Mike Murphy, pundit for the right, chose to illustrate via analogy.

MURPHY: Here’s, I think, the Bill Clinton problem. I’ll use a Hollywood example. If you’re Robert Redford’s agent and the producers want him to star in a new movie, and they come to you and say 'We’ve got a great co-star, Brad Pitt.' They’re going to, 'No, no, no, we want Ernest Borgnine.' He takes the energy and the...

BOB SHRUM: Are you calling Hillary Ernest Borgnine?

MURPHY: No, no, no, I’m using a Hollywood—I figured Democrats, Hollywood—a dated Hollywood reference here. No, but it’s a problem. He takes up all the energy, and he makes a change election about going backwards, which is death for her, I think.

Watch the video (he starts his bit at around 33:52) and you'll hear Murphy's pronunciation of "co-star" as "co-stair" without correction. Because he says it so clearly and he runs right over without noticing I don't think it was just a mangled vowel--his oversight is more indicative of a phonemic error (such as a spoonerism or other switched segment) that is more likely to go unnoticed. I think back on those times when I accidentally said the wrong name when telling a story (X did that? I thought it was Y. to which I respond Did I say X? I meant Y!). This is a higher order speech error: evidence of a broader awareness of several items though we utter just one at a time. Not just a stumble of the tongue that has more to do with tripping than choosing. So I wonder what contaminated his pronunciation. Is it the [e] in "great"? Is it anticipation of the identical [er] in "They're going to..."? We've all committed such tips of the slung.

Another little note:
The transcript represents his truncated phrase as "They're going to, 'No no no'" even though he actually says something more like "they're gah, 'aaaa.'" A very nasal mid vowel--perhaps [ɘ̃::]. I'm not sure about the syllabification. It's rather like a bleat.

Notice that Murphy first puts the audience (Russert?) into the story as Redford's agent ("If you’re Robert Redford’s agent...and they come to you and say") then he reports the reaction in third person ("they're gonna..."). It's a common switch when the player isn't the point of the story--the reaction is.

And further:
Murphy's line that is interrupted by Shrum, "he takes the energy and the..." actually includes one more syllable. It sounds like he's about to say either "honesty" or "all" but I have no idea where he was headed. Since it's not clear there is no reason for the transcript to provide sounds. The point of a transcript is to reproduce words not phonemes. Ideas not sounds. That's why they commonly ignore stuttering and repeated articles like the and a.

But finally:
Here's why I first noticed Murphy's little speech. It has nothing to do with linguistics. He uses the analogy that Redford's agent would never make the mistake of pairing him with Brad Pitt as a co-star. Ever heard of Spy Game Mr Murphy?


  1. The real stars don't care who they're cast with. The second stringers worry about that.

  2. Yes. Especially not an actor like Redford who has nurtured a legacy of encouraging young actors directors and writers.

    I know I'm nitpicking but the point of his analogy was weak.

  3. Yes, it was. If Hillary's Redford, she won't care, either: she'll welcome it.

    Is she? That's a different question, but his analogy assumes she is. And so it falls apart.

    (if this shows up more than once, blame your word verification...)


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