As Boston’s “Mayor For Life,” Thomas M. Menino, prepares to step down in January, he leaves many legacies, from filled-in potholes to new skyscrapers downtown. But the mayor’s most personal legacy may be his impact on the English language.
Over his 20 years in office, “Mumbles” Menino’s colorful slips of the tongue, delivered in his shambling Boston accent, have provided endless humor and fascination for journalists and the public. When he wasn’t (allegedly) calling Boston’s lack of parking spaces “an Alcatraz around my neck,” he was mixing up player names on just about every local team; just this October, he expressed his hope that the Sox would win “the World Series Cup.” How could a man who couldn’t get through a sentence without 10 “ums” and several false starts be mayor of the Athens of America?
From a linguist’s perspective, however, Menino’s mumbles don’t create any such contradictions. “People view language as a window onto the soul or the mind,” Ariel Goldberg, a psychologist at Tufts University who studies speech errors, told me. “But this stuff [i.e., verbal stumbles] doesn’t correlate with intelligence.” What makes politicians notable stumblers (think George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Joe Biden) is not brains or education, or even the relative number of stumbles they make. It has more to do with how stumbles feed a political persona—authentic and folksy, foot-in-mouth idiot, or some combination.
Menino is a perfect example. The mayor embraced his own unintelligibility as an asset in his straight-shooter, urban mechanic persona—resulting in a confidence that could make him even harder to understand. “He’s the mayor, he can’t say that he’s forgotten the guy’s name,” said Gary Dell, a cognitive scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “But also, he’s a confident speaker and he just lets it rip.”
Ever since Freud, people have been trying to find meaning in verbal blurts. Take a classic Meninoism: “People cannot conjugate on the Garden, you know three or more people conjugating on the Boston Public—on the Public Garden over the next several weeks will be banned.” Conjugate doesn’t just mean “amo amas amat”; it also means “to pair or fuse.” So Menino’s accidental preference for that over the tamer “congregrate” might’ve raised a psychoanalytic eyebrow.
But more recent research has shown that most stumbles are mechanical glitches, a product of the multilayered logistics of speaking correctly: uttering the right word, using the right sounds, according to the right grammatical rules. Errors occur on all these layers—and we all make them, at the average rate of one per 1,000 words, or once every seven minutes of blabbing.
Most of Menino’s famous errors are simple mechanical screw-ups. Herald columnist Howie Carr’s religiously maintained collection includes slips like “Together we can beat prostrate cancer.” This, said Dell, is a particularly easy mistake, both because “prostrate” exists as a word and because “prostate” carries stress on both syllables, encouraging the persistence of the “r” sound from the first syllable into the second—a kind of slip known as “perseveration.” Menino also makes grammatical errors, like “I have did my duty...” But as Dell pointed out, this blends two different grammatically correct phrases (“I did my duty”/“I have done my duty”). Evidently, Menino knows the past tense of “to do” but got jammed by two competing options.
Then there’s his long history of mangling sports names: “Wilcock” and “Gonk” for Patriots Vince Wilfork and Rob “Gronk” Gronkowski; “Grabowski” and “Weckler,” on another occasion, for Gronkowski and his then teammate Wes Welker; “KJ” and “Hondo” for Celtics Kevin “KG” Garnett and Rajon Rondo. Perhaps most infamously, he once boasted of “Varitek splitting the uprights” when he meant former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri. These mistakes have been taken either as evidence of the Menino-is-foolish theory or to build a case, as Ian Crouch recently did on The New Yorker website, that Menino doesn’t care about Boston sports. In fact, though, studies of recall have shown that personal names are harder to learn and remember than other words. And the names he substitutes—KJ, or Kevin Johnson, the retired NBA star and current mayor of Sacramento; Hondo, or John Havlicek, who played on the Celtics back when Menino was selling insurance for Met Life—suggest that the mayor may have been a bigger fan before he got so busy attending all those ribbon-cutting ceremonies. “What’s coming out,” said Dell, “is his knowledge of old-time Celtics basketball.”
Then there are Menino’s malapropisms. The most literary of all verbal blunders, malapropisms are named for a character in Richard Sheridan’s 1775 play “The Rivals,” Mrs. Malaprop, who constantly comes up with the wrong fancy word. Malapropisms have often been viewed with classist overtones. In Michael Erard’s book “Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean,” he writes, “It’s often thought that malapropisms are made by people who (like Mrs. Malaprop) are overreaching their station in life.” When we mock Menino for “Alcatraz around my neck” and “conjugate on the Garden,” it’s with over 200 years of antimalapropist elitism.
However, malapropisms have been unfairly maligned. Everyone makes them, from your next-door neighbor to major newspapers to linguists themselves. What Menino’s notorious malapropisms do suggest is that, instead of pausing when he’s unsure, he has a habit of roaring ahead. “Whereas [if] you and I [had] trouble remembering, we’d say, ‘I’ve got this, al-, I forget the word, this al-something around my neck,’” said Dell, Menino “just kind of goes right on.”
We’re used to thinking of verbal confidence as something that would give us eloquence, fluidity. In Menino’s case, his confidence has given him something else: the courage to occasionally drop a nonsense word, make the unforgivable Massachusetts mistake of messing up a local sports fact (or seven), or call Martin Luther King Jr. “Martha.” It was confidence, paradoxically, that made Menino Mumbles. As he said in his 1993 victory speech, “I’m not a fancy talker, but I get the job done.”
Britt Peterson is a writer in Washington, D.C.