A herd of Irish bulls

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Dec 04, 2006 12:01 AM
A herd of Irish bulls

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."

The term is said to have been inspired by one Sir Boyle Roche, a member of the 18th Century Irish parliament who was given to earnest inanities. For example, there was his response to another member's appeal for some measure because it would benefit posterity. "Why, Mr. Speaker," asked Sir Boyle, "should we do anything for posterity? What has posterity done for us?"

This master of the Irish bull was regularly moved by Ireland's troubles. "The country is overflowing with absentee landlords," he complained, and, what's more, "The cup of Ireland's misfortunes has been overflowing for centuries, and is not full yet."

It's not easy to distinguish between an Irish bull and a figure of speech that's been run through a Mixmaster. Consider this poetic passage from one of Sir Boyle's orations: "All along the untrodden path of the future, I can see the footprints of an unseen hand."

It was also Sir Boyle who interrupted a parliamentary debate with the heartfelt plea: "I believe in reciprocity as much as anyone else, but it shouldn't be on one side."

You don't have to be Irish to commit an Irish bull, but it helps. Mayor Daley I of the grand city of Chicago, where the river runs green every St. Patrick's Day, turned out Irish bulls in abundance, the way he did dead voters every election day.

During the Democrats' riotous convention in Chicago back in 1968, Mayor Daley assured the press that the police weren't there to create disorder but to preserve disorder! Which cleared that up.

Perhaps the most prolific breeder of Irish bulls on these shores was movie mogul Sam Goldwyn, who famously observed that a verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's printed on. Mr. Goldwyn could scarcely open his mouth without putting his foot in it. Among his finer productions: "Anybody who goes to a psychiatrist should have his head examined," and "I'm living beyond my means, but I can afford it."

Don't get me started on the collected works of Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel, both naturals at the art of twisting language into delightful knots.

Arkansas is also well-represented in this competition for the best, meaning the worst, Irish bulls. Though he modestly denied authorship, a former governor of the state-Frank White-is said to have warned that a proposal would open a whole box of Pandoras.

I could go on forever but, in keeping with my subject, I'll just commence right here.