Saturday, April 02, 2011

Master in commander

A post at Language Log this morning about the eggcorning of "case in point" set me to wondering about a similar one that seems to be crossing more into the upper registers of late: "commander and chief" for "commander in chief." Here's one from the opinion pages of the Troy Record last fall:

Charles Krauthammer: Our distracted commander and chief

There's no mention of "commander in chief" in the column;* the mistake belongs to the hed writer. So how does it get that way? Two of the eggcorn conditions the Log notes for "case in point/case and point" are also present here: The original pattern has come detached from its meaning, and the two pronunciations are roughly equal ("commander 'n' chief" being sort of like "fair 'n' balanced"). I started noticing it mostly in reader comments on news articles. Here's one from a Washington Post piece last year about Obama's plans to spend Memorial Day weekend in Chicago (thus disgracing America by visiting a national cemetery that wasn't Arlington):

... when someone shows there lack of faith in this commander and chief it doesn't make them racist. Also Cemetery does not have an "a" in it, moron.

... but it turns out to be more common than I expected in edited language as well. And there's an entertaining twist: People will botch "commander and chief" right and left, but they almost always get "Kenyan in chief" right.

On to some examples.
Here's a Fresno Bee article from January:

Brad Meltzer, author and host of the History Channel series "Brad Meltzer's Decoded," knew he had a fan in President George H.W. Bush when the former Commander and Chief asked whether he would autograph a copy of his book, "The Millionaires," for him.

A Marine Corps press release (April 2010) about an officer's retirement:

He also received a letter from President Barack Obama, thanking him for his service and dedication to his country during a critical time in America's history. "Your commitment and dedication have been an inspiration for those who will follow in your footsteps," read the letter from the commander and chief.

The American Forces Press Service after the Fort Hood killings:

Obama said he has no greater honor than serving as commander and chief, but also recognizes the responsibility that entails in ensuring servicemembers are properly cared for and that their safety is assured while they are at home.

The Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot News during the 2008 campaign (Sept. 11):

"I look at [Sen. John] McCain as someone who has this military background and the commander and chief kind of image," he said. "I look at Obama as someone who is really bright and new who represents change."

It's rarer but not unheard-of in the Reagan administration**; here's the Lincoln Star in September 1983:

The intent is clear. While the president is the commander and chief of the armed forces and has authority to use troops in an emergency or brief tactical operation, any situation which puts U.S. troops in combat or even in an area of hostiles for a prolonged time needs the approval of Congress.

And an especially bizarre prepositional swap from the WashPost in 1980:

That's the same Jimmy Carter who, in a convention platform fight over the MX missile, traded on his title as commander of chief in a personal, handwritten note to every delegate.

Journalism has always been a little loose with the "commander in chief" thing as an Elongated Yellow Fruit epithet, in that the president is commander in chief of the armed forces,** not the whole damn country. And the original "in chief" pattern remains clear in the fanciful variants that newspapers like. Clinton is the first "comforter in chief" in Lexis; here's USAT from 1999:

President Clinton, who has picked up the moniker "comforter in chief," visits North Carolina today to meet with victims of Hurricane Floyd and confer with state and local officials to coordinate federal relief efforts.
Lexis has only two hits for "comforter and chief." This one, from 2003 and the loss of the shuttle Columbia, looks like a botched transcription (at "The Hotline") from a broadcast:

He's going to be measured against the test of Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan was in the midst of the Iran-Contra scandal and a lot of other terrible political troubles. And he -- when -- he was the comforter and chief there, after the Challenger blew up, that was a signal moment with that extraordinary Peggy Noonan speech.

Obama and Bush Jr., of course, were comforters in chief in their turn. Even Laura Bush had a go; here's Ellen Goodman from November 2001:

The better she was, the more I waited expectantly for some hint that Mrs. Bush was ready to enlarge upon her post as comforter in chief. Ready to take on some work more tangible than uplifter in chief.

Clinton -- surprise, surprise -- was also adulterer in chief. Bush fulfilled several roles:

For all the talk about the decider-in-chief, the president is also our role-model-in-chief.

... and runs well ahead of Obama in the "idiot-in-chief" sweepstakes, at least in the sort of content that Lexis catalogs. Both manage a few references for "usurper," though the balance is toward Obama:

"I think the system has crushed an honorable man.  All institutions of our government have failed us. They crushed him. That man in the Oval Office is the Usurper in Chief," said Charles F. Kerchner Jr., who said he would be returning to the proceedings tomorrow.

And see if you can guess who the Arkansas DemGaz had in mind with this October 2009 editorial:


Half-speed ahead and unsteady as she goes!

For some of the more apocalyptic stuff, Lexis isn't much help. You have to root around in comments sections:

She has more experience than the Kenyan-In-Chief - come to think of it having served in the military and having a an MBA, I have more experience than the Kenyan

and this is just the stuff we know about…don’t even want to think what the deceiver-in-chief is doing/planning behind the scenes

(still no statement from the muslim in chief, but it prolly wouldn't look good if he ordered the charges dropped against the islamist like they did for the black panthers in Philly--then again, I'm sure the knee-pad media would rationalize it for the sheeple)

Coming soon to a headline near you.

Anyway, we can still be a little prescriptive about "Commander in Chief." But it's nice to know there's a technical explanation for it.

* And no, the hed isn't making fun of Our Chuckles; the colon is how the paper introduces opinion writers and such op-ed features as "Sound Off" and "Pulse of the People." Alas.
** The Lexis archive is also a lot less thorough for those days; salt all such comparative conclusions before using.
*** Actually, just of the army and navy. No doubt the Framers kept the Air Force independent in case a Kenyan Islamofascist usurper in the White House tried to send the Army into action against the American people.



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