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February 08, 2019  |  Friday words #159  |  1620 hit(s)

The president delivered his 2019 State of the Union address this week, but beforehand, he had lunch with some reporters. At the lunch, he reportedly made the curious remark "When I say something that you might think is a gaffe, it’s on purpose; it’s not a gaffe."

Trump presumably had in mind the standard definition of gaffe to mean "blunder, social mistake." But the remark struck me because it came from a politician, and I only recently learned the term Kinsley gaffe. This is named for the journalist Michael Kinsley, who once said "A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth—some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say." Does Trump say the truth in the guise of making a mistake?

Not all political gaffes are Kinsley gaffes; sometimes politicians just say or do dumb things. (Wait, did I say sometimes?) A true Kinsley gaffe has to reveal what people suspect but that a savvy politician should not admit. Some examples:

  • In 2011, the Republican Senate Majority Leader in Wisconsin, Scott Fitzgerald, said in an interview that he was pushing to restrict collective bargaining by public employees—that is, unions—in order to defund the base for Democrats.
  • During the 2012 election, a Mitt Romney spokesperson reassured voters that Romney's hard-conservative positions in the primaries were not worrisome, because "like an Etch a Sketch," the positions would be reset for the general election.
  • In a 2015 interview, Kevin McCarthy, who at the time was the GOP House Majority Leader, admitted that the congressional hearings on the 2012 Benghazi attack were motivated by a desire to hurt Hillary Clinton's chances for election.
  • Last Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that a proposed Election Day Holiday was a "power grab" by the Democrats, effectively admitting that allowing more people to vote would be to the Republicans' disadvantage.

Although Kinsley was focused on politicians, you could argue that non-politicians are subject to Kinsley gaffes as well. In 1999, Scott McNealy, who was then CEO of Sun Microsystems, said "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." In 2010, Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, said " We don't need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you've been. We can more or less know what you're thinking about."

The more I think about this, the more examples I want to find. Let me know if you have other candidate Kinsley gaffes.

Ok, origins. What's the scape part of a scapegoat? The quick answer is that it's related to escape—although we imported the word with an initial e- from French in medieval times, for several centuries an e-less version (scape) was common.

So it's an escape-goat. I didn't initially get this. A scapegoat is the one who's the designated recipient of blame. Today's that's metaphoric, but in Biblical times it was more literal—it was a goat, and it was ritually assigned to bear the sins of the community. How is that goat then an "escape" goat? Well, it turns out that in the ritual of sin-letting, there are two goats involved, as described in Leviticus 16:

7 And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.

8 And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat.

9 And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the LORD'S lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering.


21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness:

22 And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.

So one goat is sacrificed, but the goat onto which the iniquities of the tribe are laid is sent out into the wilderness—he escapes. (The fact that I didn't know this story suggest that my Bible literacy could be improved.)

There is a footnote in all this about the word (e)scapegoat. The word was brought into English by Tyndale in his early English translation of the Bible from Hebrew. But the Hebrew word that he translated—azazel—might either mean "escaped, departed" or it might be the name of a demon. It's therefore possible that the scape part of scapegoat is all based on a misunderstanding. Douglas Harper has details, should you be curious.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

Daniel Rose   15 Feb 19 - 5:17 AM

The link to Douglas Harper's blog is broken.

mike   15 Feb 19 - 5:42 AM

Fixed, thanks!