Sun, Jun 27, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Going missing, pussyfooting and what to do softly with a big stick

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

President Bush, whose major contribution to the English lexicon is the deliciously doubly-negatived "misunderestimate," was called upon to pronounce the word tyranny at the recent commemoration of the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Perhaps influenced by the root word tyrant, which is pronounced TIE-rant, he pronounced tyranny TIE-ranny. The correct pronunciation, however illogical, is TIRR-anny. (Only the requirement to wear a tie in summer heat can be called "tie-ranny.")

Balancing Bush's miniblunder is the misquotation committed by his presumed Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry. "More than a century ago," the Democratic candidate told a rally in Seattle, "Teddy Roosevelt defined American leadership in foreign policy. He said America should `walk softly and carry a big stick.'" In a letter written in 1900, a year before he became president, Theodore Roosevelt wrote, "I have always been fond of the West African proverb: `Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.'' He repeated what he called this "homely old adage" in a speech as president in Chicago in 1903, and twice again in his writings after that. Every time, it was "Speak softly."

Kerry has bipartisan company in this error. Then governor Bill Clinton, campaigning for president in 1992, told a cheering audience: "Teddy Roosevelt once said that we should walk softly and carry a big stick. Today I want to talk softly and carry Ohio." Perhaps he was influenced by former President Gerald Ford's comment in 1981 about reacting to the Soviet arms buildup: "The United States should walk softly and carry a big stick."

Walking softly has never had a positive political connotation. On the contrary, it is associated with sneakiness or excessive caution: In 1893, Scribner's magazine looked suspiciously at men who "were beginning to walk pussy-footed and shy at shadows." In 1907, a special agent assigned to catch revenue-evaders in the Indian Territory became known for his "panther tread" and was given the sobriquet "Pussyfoot Johnson." The word, as a verb, has since come to mean "to evade stealthily, to walk on eggs" or even "to creep." Though it has frequently been misused in quotation, to walk softly is a political no-no. Aspiring leaders should remember to speak softly (though one's tone may be raised in reference to TIRR-anny).

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