In eight years, we’ve gone from Kerry to Perry.
The “Kerry” would be John, who, in 2006, said this in a speech to a group of students:
“You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.” Kerry staffers’ damage control on the line—which many people took as insulting to current, former, and future troops—wasn’t stellar. They said the end of the quote was supposed to be ” … you get us stuck in Iraq,” which isn’t much, or actually any, better. Then Kerry himself went on Don Imus’s radio program and said, by way of explanation, “Look, everybody knows I botched a joke. It’s not the first time anybody’s done that, Don. Am I right?” Later, when Imus pressed him to apologize, Kerry said, “Well, I did. I said it was a botched joke. Of course, I’m sorry about a botched joke. You think I love botched jokes? I mean, it’s pretty stupid.”
What struck me most at the time was the word botched. Not that Kerry wasn’t using it correctly—the relevant OED definition for the verb is “To spoil by unskilful work; to bungle.” But, especially as an adjective, as opposed to the past tense of the verb, it has a stiff and awkward feel that, unfortunately, also seemed to apply to Kerry himself. It’s one of those words, like “limned” or “remuneration,” that probably should never be said, only written. (In professional wrestling, botch has particular meaning. In the words of the lengthy Wikipedia entry for it: “to attempt a scripted move or spoken line that does not come out as it was originally planned due to a mistake, miscalculation, or a slip-up.” That is in contrast to the rather PoMo “kayfabe,” which—Wikipedia again—”is the portrayal of staged events within the industry as ‘real’ or ‘true,’ specifically the portrayal of competition, rivalries, and relationships between participants as being genuine and not of a staged or pre-determined nature.”)
Kerry’s almost poignant perseveration on the word—which continued post-Imus—appeared to give botched a boost. The word showed up in The New York Times 131 times in 2003, and 690 in ’04. It kept ascending, cresting at 2,230 in 2010, before leveling off a bit.
The boom times are back. The Golden Age of botched began with last fall’s roll-out of healthcare.gov, which everyone, from POTUS on down, is apparently unable to characterize by any other adjective. But that is as nothing compared with discussion of the state of Oklahoma’s horribly unsuccessful attempt last week to put a man to death. As I write, a search on Google News for the phrase “botched execution” yields 112,000 hits, 13 of them posted within the last hour.
On Sunday, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas appeared on Meet the Press and was asked about critics who’ve pointed out gaffes he made during his own failed presidential run, in 2012. He said: “I would tend to agree with them on the botched effort side of it.”
It’s always risky business to propose the cause for a language trend (or any trend, or anything). But part of botched‘s appeal, without question, is the way it sidesteps culpability. To call something you’ve done or been responsible for botched is to say, “I accept the responsibility but not the blame.” (The impressionist David Frye to the contrary, Richard Nixon never uttered those words. However, the New Zealand politician Robert Semple did, in 1944. The association with Nixon, it seems, stems from a 1973 John Herbers New York Times article in which the phrase is given, not in quotation marks, as part of the White House counteroffensive against Watergate. I await further research by The Quote Investigator.)
Botched conveys the message that whatever problems may have occurred had nothing to do with your policies, your thinking, or your principles, but only with their execution. No pun intended.
Author Bio: Ben Yagoda is a professor of English and journalism at the University of Delaware and the author of, among other books, The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing and How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Errors and the Best Ways to Avoid Them.