A modicum of emoticons

On ADS-L, some coverage of l’affaire Meghan McCain, the MSNBC reporter who declared on camera on the 9th that the Obamas deserve “an emoticon of privacy”; New York Magazine coverage here, with the video.

Ben Zimmer wrote:

A simple malaprop for “modicum,” or more of an eggcorn? (She said it twice, so it wasn’t just a slip of the tongue.) An emoticon is a small squiggly thing, so I can vaguely see a semantic basis for it.

Two issues here: what she said, and what caused her to say it. But first, a note on “an emoticon of privacy”.

The story went “rippling across the memesphere”, as Garson O’Toole put it on ADS-L: in addition to New York Magazine, the Huffington Post, Breitbart.tv, BuzzFeed, the Daily Caller, and others. From the last:

Whether she meant to or not, McCain inspired us at The Daily Caller to envision what an “emoticon of privacy” would look like:

As for what she said, from the Daily Caller:

After the Internet reacted in predictable fashion to the MSNBC contributor’s fumbling of “modicum,” she took to Twitter to defend herself.

“Thanks everyone, was talking quickly and said ModiCOM instead of ModiCUM this morning,” she explained. “Thanks for obsessing over my every waking word.

That last bit is a characteristic defensive response by someone who’s been called on an error. In this case, she’s claiming she said something closer to modicum than what I hear on the video, which has four syllables (not three) and an accented vowel /o/ (not /a/): emoticon, not modicon.

As for the error, it could be just a slip of the tongue, specifically an inadvertent word retrieval error (of the Fay/Cutler variety). The fact is that these retrieval errors (both of the F/C phonological type and of the semantics-based type) sometimes persist: once you’ve said “spread like wildflower” (instead of “wildfire”) you are moderately likely to say it again not long after (and similarly for “teaching assistant” instead of “research assistant”; these are real-life examples). Once you’ve pulled up the wrong word, it’s in your memory for a while, and you have a fair chance of using it again. Similarly for purely phonological errors.

As in many other cases, it’s hard to distinguish inadvertent errors (phonological slips or F/C malapropisms) from advertent productions that are, from the point of view of other speakers, word mistakes (classical malapropisms, of which eggcorns are a special case).

If you’re lucky, you can ask speakers if they said what they intended to, but they’re not necessarily reliable reporters. In McCain’s case, she reports making a mistake — but (implausibly to my mind) a  phonological slip, not any kind of word substitution. We can never know the truth of the matter.

One Response to “A modicum of emoticons”

  1. Stan Says:

    There are a couple of significant differences between her two utterances of the word (beyond what I might attribute to normal variation). I hear the first very clearly as “emoticon”, but the second one has first syllable /ə/ rather than /ɪ/ and final syllable /m/ rather than /n/. It’s as though she (half-)realised she’d erred the first time but didn’t have time to retrieve the word she wanted, or maybe she recalled it and sought to repeat it in a way that bridged the gap between emoticon and modicum and thereby cover her slip.

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