Friday, March 27, 2020

Edwin L. Battistella's "Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels"

Edwin L. Battistella teaches linguistics and writing at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, where he has served as a dean and as interim provost. His books include Bad Language: Are Some Words Better than Others? and Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology. He writes a monthly column, "Between the Lines with Edwin Battistella," for the Oxford University Press blog.

Battistella applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels: Insulting the President, from Washington to Trump, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels picks up with William Howard Taft, who served from 1909-1913, and later was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Readers get a bit of his background, learning that the affable Taft was known as “Smiling Bill” and was Teddy Roosevelt’s chosen successor. But the two had a falling out as Taft reined in a good deal of Teddy’s progressive reforms. By 1912, Smiling Bill and Teddy were running against each other and the Bull Moose Party was born. Things got ugly.

Page 99 gives readers a good feel for the descriptions of presidents and the challenges they face, and Taft’s single term is a perfect illustration of this, sandwiched between Teddy and Woodrow Wilson and roughly midway between Washington and Trump. What readers won’t find on page 99 are the insults themselves, which occur nearby on pages 98 (for Teddy) and 100 (for Taft). On those pages, readers learn, among other things, that Taft called Teddy Roosevelt a “honeyfuggler”—an old term for a swindler or conman—and that that Teddy considered Taft to be “a flubdub with a streak of the second-rate and common in him.” Page 99 is the set up, the necessary background to appreciate the insults.

Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels has an alternating structure with chapters covering key periods in US history and with sections on each of the nation’s forty-five presidents detailing how they were dissed. The introductions to the chapters provide context to the historical periods, from the Founders (Chapter Two) to the Culture Wars (Chapter Seven), and the book is adorned with caricatures by artist Morgan Pielli and with Etymological Explorations—sidebars that give the history of terms like copperhead and wimp, among others.

The message beyond the insults themselves is twofold: how consistent the categories of insults have been over time even as the words themselves change, and the power and importance of the First Amendment—the right of Americans to insult the president, whoever that is.
Visit Edwin L. Battistella's website.

--Marshal Zeringue