Paul Greenberg

I'd been collecting them long before I knew they were called Irish bulls. That's the term for grandiloquent flights of prose that, when read literally, make no sense. Politicians are a particularly rich source of such quotes. Lawyers and editorial writers, especially of the more pompous sort, tend to churn out non sequiturs at a steady clip, too.

So do the kind of economists who would do better to stick with numbers and leave the words alone. Alan Greenspan, for example. As chairman of the Fed, he was as indecipherable as the head of some mystical cult, perhaps deliberately so, knowing that a single phrase-like "irrational exuberance"-could upset economies all over the world.

For years my favorite contribution to the Annals of Awful Prose was a wobbly flight of rhetoric composed by Clarence Manion, a minor figure back in the Eisenhower era. Being both a law school dean and a politician of sorts, he had an unfair advantage when it came to mauling the language. It was Dean Manion who produced the classic warning that "mere form without substance must collapse of its own weight."

Dean Manion's gift for the unintentionally comic might have risen to high art if only he'd been an economist, too. Maybe that's why Clarence Manion finally lost his title as worst practitioner of political prose to Paul Krugman, the economist who writes, so to speak, for the New York Times. One day, in the course of denouncing the Bush tax cuts that have proven such a boon to the economy in recent years, Professor Krugman produced this prize-winning doozy:

"And when the chickens that didn't hatch come home to roost, we will rue the day when, misled by sloppy accounting and rosy scenarios, we gave away the national nest egg."

The moral of that story: Some people should not be allowed anywhere close to a metaphor; it's the verbal equivalent of handing a two-year-old a loaded pistol.

As a result of my announcing that Dean Manion had been bested as all-time champion of Awful Prose, I learned the precise name of the literary folly he was so adept at. An old friend-Father John O'Donnell-sent me a batch of similar sentences, all collected in one article by a connoisseur of the art, Francis Griffith. The genre turned out to have a name: Irish bulls.

An Irish bull, I learned, is not a branch of the Angus family but "a verbal blunder which seems to make sense but after a moment's reflection is seen to be wildly illogical."


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.