Against "Make No Mistake"
Time to fight back against the worst Bushism of all.
Here at Slate, we've been known to derive amusement from the endlessly creative ways President George W. Bush finds to mangle the English language. But even inarticulate presidents can influence the way the rest of us speak. "Misunderestimate," for instance, is well on its way to becoming a real word, just as Warren G. Harding's botch of the word "normality" in 1920 gave us the now-accepted (if unlovely) term, "normalcy." But Dubya's greatest influence on the way the rest of us speak may be his overuse of the easy-to-pronounce rhetorical phrase, "make no mistake."
I do not count myself among those who hate President Bush. But I do hate the expression, "make no mistake." It's a bully-boy phrase, meant to warn that the speaker really means what he is saying. But shouldn't we always mean what we say—or, if we're politicians, at least pretend to? Even if you buy into the phrase's swagger, it isn't half so creative as "read my lips," which speechwriter Peggy Noonan put into George H.W. Bush's mouth when he promised not to raise taxes. ("Read my lips" had to be retired after Bush père broke that promise in 1990, but that's hardly Noonan's fault.) "Read my lips" is funny—unless, of course, it's spoken to a deaf person—and swagger always comes across better when it's leavened with humor. "Make no mistake," on the other hand, are the words not merely of a bully, but of a bully who lacks panache. It practically begs for a defiant response. Listen, buddy, I'll make a mistake whenever I goddamn well feel like it. And, of course, it's especially galling coming from Bush, whose presidency has been one long string of mistakes, most especially the one we're currently grappling with in Iraq.
The current president did not invent the phrase, "make no mistake," but he uses it a lot. The search engine for the White House Web site displays 227 instances, and, even discounting for the fact that some of these MNMs emanated from Bush apparatchiks like former press spokesman Ari Fleischer and Tom Ridge, I feel certain that's a gross undercount.
It's the ripple effect that interests Chatterbox. For 1994, the Factiva news database finds 3,624 MNMs, with the phrase's usage heavily weighted to manly discussions about business or sports. MNMs climbed steadily through the 1990s, adding about one thousand references each year. Since the base number kept growing, the rate of growth actually declined. Then—bam!—MNMs jumped from 9,174 in 2000 to 12,062 in 2001, the first year of Bush's presidency. Last year yielded 13,141 MNMs, and the first four and a half months of this year have so far given us 5,223. Given that this is an election year, Chatterbox wouldn't be surprised to see MNMs break 15,000.
And look at who's MNM-ing. "Make no mistake, we also have to move the cause [of racial integration] forward," John Kerry said today. "Make no mistake, something similar could have happened in New York, too," read a Daily News review today of a new movie. MNM is no longer just the language of sports and business; it pervades discussions of "soft" topics like race and the arts as well. It's everywhere.
It must be stopped. Please join Chatterbox in silent protest. Sometime today, make a mistake. Any mistake. You'll be surprised at how good it feels.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.