Foot in Mouth award
December 1, 2003 2:34 PM   Subscribe

Donald Rumsfeld has won the 2003 Foot in Mouth award. The award is given by the Plain English Campaign for the most baffling quote by a public figure, but they don't seem to realize that Rumsfeld was actually creating poetry. I wonder who will present the award.
posted by homunculus (23 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
...the ones we don't know we don't know.
The Unknown. —Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing.
This award is a not know & is not unknown: Wrong year & he knew what he said, The Unknown poem.
posted by thomcatspike at 3:02 PM on December 1, 2003

Questioned about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden during the war in Afghanistan, he replied: "We do know of certain knowledge that he is either in Afghanistan, or in some other country, or dead." More Rumsfeldisms.

But in context he makes sense.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, when asked Thursday about bin Laden's whereabouts, said he has stopped following daily conflicting reports of bin Laden's location.

With tongue in cheek, he added, "We do know of certain knowledge that he is either in Afghanistan or in some other country, or dead. And we know of certain knowledge that we don't know which of those happens to be the case."

posted by Feisty at 3:02 PM on December 1, 2003

I've read numerous smug references to the incomprehensibility of Rumsfeld's statement, and frankly I find them... incomprehensible. It seems to me a perfectly good point: there are things we know we don't know (how to stop cancer, for example) and things we don't know we don't know (I can't give an example for obvious reasons, but a century from now they'll be able to give us dozens). "Known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns" are succinct terms for the distinction. I dislike Rummy as much as anybody, but this strikes me as simple know-nothingism (like the attacks on Bush for saying "nucular").
posted by languagehat at 3:19 PM on December 1, 2003

Say wrong year as Richard G. received his award the same year he said it, June 2002.
posted by thomcatspike at 3:26 PM on December 1, 2003

I wouldn't say it was putting your foot in your mouth, just terribly awkward phrasing by Rumsfeld. Certainly there must have been better candidates, like how could they overlook this one:

"I think that gay marriage is something that should be between a man and a woman," - Arnold Schwarzenegger
posted by bobo123 at 3:50 PM on December 1, 2003

languagehat: I completely agree. And the only thing more annoying than hearing that line smugly quoted over and over is its equation with "poetry," as if "poetic" equalled "baffling." Most people seem to think that poetry is supposed to stun your brain into incomprehension -- that is, that it's seemingly deep but really nonsensical. Know-nothingism times two.
posted by macrone at 3:58 PM on December 1, 2003

Here's a transcript from the original briefing. languagehat is right: it's a thoughtful answer, and not at all the evasive maundering it appears when stripped of context.

I had this quote printed out and pinned to my cubicle wall a few months ago after an over-anxious project manager asked me to estimate for unknown contingencies one too many times.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:09 PM on December 1, 2003

Schwarzenegger was robbed. They should have an award for technically correct but unnecesary or inappropriate rhetorical flourishes. That is something Rummy would deserve.

thomcatspike, I think you're holding them to a more serious standard than they deserve. Think of it more like the Oscars.
posted by homunculus at 4:10 PM on December 1, 2003

Yes, you can see what he's getting it, though it has to be said he doesn't put it across as clearly as he might have.

Take 1998's winner, though:

"1998: Cardiff MP Rhodri Morgan. In an interview with BBC Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman he was asked if he would like to be the labour leader of the new Welsh Assembly. Rhodri replied 'Does a one-legged duck swim in circles?'. After a long puzzled pause Jeremy asked Rhodri if that was Welsh for yes!"

Is it me, or did Rhodri Morgan make perfect sense, here?
posted by nthdegx at 4:23 PM on December 1, 2003

earlier today i told someone the quote sounds like willy wonka on crack--and i'll stand by that.
posted by th3ph17 at 5:32 PM on December 1, 2003

I always laugh at people who don't get this. If you listen to or read what he said, it makes perfect sense. It sounds funny, but makes total sense. Even out of context. The joke is on the people who are mocking Rumsfeld.
posted by MrAnonymous at 5:40 PM on December 1, 2003

posted by stbalbach at 9:53 PM on December 1, 2003

Canada's (soon to be ex) Prime Minister Jean Chretien on the lack of evidence regarding WMDs prior to the invasion of Iraq:
"A proof is a proof. What kind of a proof? It's a proof. A proof is a proof. And when you have a good proof, it's because it's proven."
posted by islander at 12:22 AM on December 2, 2003

Rumsfeld's speech may be logical but it is also confusing, and certainly not a great example of political rhetoric. The Plain English Campaign is about clarity as well as sense.
posted by johnny novak at 12:55 AM on December 2, 2003

It's a case of boot in mouth. It's a case of the total breakdown of seeing the world through another's eyes and acting with balance and goodwill towards them.

Words can be a total cop-out when the lives of others are meaningless as far as one's plotting is concerned. Therefore one relies on obfuscation in order to see a plot through. The words are meaningless. The plot is all that matters. Therefore the words are chosen wisely, or perhaps, not even chosen at all.

This particular Rumsfeldian canard is just that: The utter lack of regard for the mental well being of those of us who live on planet Earth and do not know what he knows even though it is unknown and the unknown is unknowable insofar as the knowable has been meted out in the sense of it benefacting the forces that seek to understand the unknowns in order to make them known. Though some of those knowns will remain a matter of national security. As well as, of course, the great litany of unknowns that you must understand, a man in my position, must dutifully confront as a matter of course as per my vocation of seeing through the great dream that is the United States Constitution.

But I digress. . .

posted by crasspastor at 2:53 AM on December 2, 2003

I always laugh at people who don't get this. If you listen to or read what he said, it makes perfect sense. It sounds funny, but makes total sense. Even out of context. The joke is on the people who are mocking Rumsfeld.
The principal aim of the Plain English Campaign is to promote a clear use of English. Rumsfeld himself goes on to say "There's another way to phrase that and that is that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It is basically saying the same thing in a different way.". That is clearer so why use the original flowery language in the first place (not that I have a problem with it personally)?
posted by chill at 4:00 AM on December 2, 2003

I still like Arnold Schwarzenegger's as runner up better: "I think that gay marriage is something that should be between a man and a woman."
posted by benjh at 4:45 AM on December 2, 2003

It's evident some people think that rephrasing one statement is an attack to the person making the statement. No it is not ! An attack is more like "you sir, are an idiot". If a phrase is taken out of context it can mean anything, unless it has been structured in a way that makes it self-explanating.

Rephrasing is a good thing, if more people understand what is being said.. for instance, taken from Rumsfield

It sounds like a riddle. It isn't a riddle. It is a very serious, important matter

Rumsfeld is aware that what he said may sound like a riddle, but makes no effort to make it more clear. I expect and demand clarity from a speaker, riddles are no good for communication.

Personally I would have rephrased him this way:

"What we're making here is a puzzle, but we don't have any picture on the box showing us how the puzzle will look like.So as we try and try to put the pieces togheter until we have a picture that seem to make sense, that really looks like as a reasonable picture of what's happeining.As we do that we become aware that we're missing some important piece of the puzzle that may complete the picture.We try hard to discover the missing important piece and little by little we're discovering them. As we do that, we may learn that the picture we had in mind was wrong and we adapt until we discover the picture that more resembles the truth"

On a tangent: uhm yeah right so the best way to find the missing pieces is to invade a country because we think that this will help finding the missing pieces , without even knowing if the country is part of the puzzle ? Too many puzzles at once ..economy puzzle, bad tryan puzzle, WMD puzzle...doesn't sound good.
posted by elpapacito at 6:40 AM on December 2, 2003

The plain language campaign is a menace; it is intent on reducing everything to the most simplistic language, easily understood by all.
A nobler aim would be to campaign to ensure that the poor ignorant masses were educated to a level that would enable them to appreciate the beauty, complexity and richness of language.
Don't use any word, use the right word, for chuffs sake.
posted by Fat Buddha at 12:23 PM on December 2, 2003

I really think you are missing the point Fat Buddha, the Plain English campaign isn't that concerned in reducing everything to the most simplistic level so that it is understood by all. It is concerned however with simplifying that which needs to be understood by all. Think small print, think legal speak, this sort of information has to be understood by everyone, whether you have a degree in English or like me, have mild dyslexia and would find everything easier to understand if it were written in ones and zeroes.

Take this example. I recently wanted to find out information about proposed legislation regarding the sale of fireworks in the UK. Now the information I was after is there, but written in an extremely disjointed style. Fortunately Parliament recognise this and provide explanatory notes here. That's fair isn't it? And that is exactly the sort of thing the Plain English campaign is asking for.
Personally I think Rumsfeld's line is trumped by the following from that legislation I posted...
"BE IT ENACTED by the Queen's most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:-
posted by chill at 2:38 PM on December 2, 2003

Chill, I really don't think I am missing the point, I have attended courses run by these people, and they really do have a contempt for language and instruct you to reduce everything write so it can be understood by even the most simple minded.
It is fine to draw attention to unnecessary and overblown verbiage and I agree there is too much of it; but do we really want to reduce language to little more than a series of expressive grunts?

Anyway, have a guide.
posted by Fat Buddha at 3:21 PM on December 2, 2003

Geoff Pullum has written a spirited
defense of Rumsfeld's grammar, rhetoric and logic here, and the spokesman for the Plain English Campaign takes his own lumps
posted by myl at 7:23 PM on December 2, 2003

My mom always quoted the 'Unknown' poem to me.

You know what you know...

You know what you don't know...

You don't know what you don't know...

Very elegant if you ask me.
posted by LoopSouth at 8:48 AM on December 3, 2003

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