Friday, December 21, 2007

"to see", verb: Because somebody has to do

You've heard it by now: Romney said "I saw my father march with Martin Luther King." Here's one summary:


Did Mitt Romney 'see' his father march with Martin Luther King?

… The American media pounced on the statement and quickly discovered that Mr Romney had been in high school at the time, more than 30 miles away from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where the 1963 civil rights march he was referring to took place. … Mr Romney said he was an "English literature major" and he had used the verb "saw" in a figurative sense.

He told reporters: "If you look at the literature, if you look at the dictionary, the term 'saw' includes being aware of in the sense I've described. "It's a figure of speech and very familiar and it's very common. And I saw my dad march with Martin Luther King.

"I did not see it with my own eyes, but I saw him in the sense of being aware of his participation in that great effort."
I was hoping for a post on some language blog where a person knowledgeable about lexical semantics would deal with this. But I just don't see much chance that Romney's claim is true. Most importantly, I don't see anything quite like this kind of meaning in the dictionaries I've checked that would fit this context. Merriam-Webster's doesn't get much closer than "to form a mental picture of" or "visualize", as in "I can still see her as she was years ago" (paraphrase of their example).

OED gives some hilarious options for reading this:
d. To behold (visual objects) in imagination, or in a dream or vision. So to see a vision, to see a dream. Also in phr. to see things, to suffer hallucinations or false imaginings; (usu. colloq. as pres. pple.).
OK, that's not what he meant, I imagine. But the figurative uses of to see seem not to refer to specific events but things more like the opening line of Allen Ginsberg's Howl:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, …
It seems impossible to come up with a scenario for figure see where you are talking about a specific event where you could have been but weren't, unless it's about learning it by reading the paper or something. Yeah, to see has lots of figurative uses, and those include something like 'to be or become aware of'. But not like this. Am I missing something or is this another screaming lie by a pol? It's a question for the historians whether his father actually did march with King.

Update, Dec. 22, 3:00 pm: Well, I'll be danged: People have come forward insisting that Romney (père, not fils) did march with King. That takes some of the sting out of this.

Image from here.

11 comments:

MLUZNYC said...

Actually this grand metaphorical use of "saw" is more common than it ought to be...

e.g., The 1930s saw the rapid rise in European fascism...

Generations of mothers have seen their childredn die in a war without end...

bla bla bla...

He got caught in a lie and tried to find a weasly way out.

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, "grand metaphorical use" is right. Your examples, like mine, all refer to things you can't see literally (in the old sense of that word), of course.

Thanks.

A.S. said...

I feel strange defending Mitt Romney, but I actually think he may be telling the truth in this case. This use of see sounds quite natural to me. Consider this example from a book review:

The book shows that the war did not just affect Americans on this side of the Pacific. Some Canadians also saw their sons killed in Vietnam or saw them return with wounds both physical and psychological.

This is about a specific event that one could potentially see, yet it is clear that the parents were not in Vietnam and thus did not literally see their sons being killed.

It seems that the bigger problem with Romney's statement is that his father never actually marched with King.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks, A.S. That example still feels pretty different to me, but you're right that it does refer to events that could be seen, in part.

Anonymous said...

A.S.'s example is good, but still much less immediate than Romney's statement -- it's about a group of unnamed people and a range of outcomes. Any time I say "I saw my dad' engage in some specific activity, that's hard to read as figurative.

Rick said...

I can imagine telling my younger friends that "In my youth I saw the Bay of Pigs crisis, the first moon landing, and the rise of the Equal Rights movement." This use is both metaphorical and literal, since I experienced them both abstractly via the news, and literally (in some degree) via television. Who's to say Romney didn't see King on TV, and knowing that his father was involved in King's cause, blend it all together in his youthful memory? How many of us, in fact, have memories that are more metaphorically then literally true? I've discovered such in myself from time to time. Ask any police detective about this effect on witnesses' memories from long ago.

Besides, does it even matter whether Romney literally saw his father? The point he was making was that his father's association with Dr. King affected his own development. Yes, it may have been a slip of memory, or perhaps a rhetorical simplification/enhancement of fact, but the attacks are just mean-spirited ankle-biting.

Ollock said...

In my opinion, the playing to "figurative" senses was a mistake on the part of Romney, as it simply made it look like he was weaseling out of a lie -- and that's the reaction it got.

I don't particularly like Romney, but I can understand his slip. Given evidence that his father did not march with Martin Luther King, Jr., but did support his ideals publicly, it seems that the entire statement is a rhetorical exaggeration. It's a bit of a weasely exaggeration, of course, but it has some basis in fact.

However, in correcting himself after the media's interpretation, it would have been much better to say that he misspoke and accidentally oversimplified his perception of his father's role in the civil rights movement. It's still a weasel hole, but it's not such an obvious weasel hole as trying to appeal to the dictionary.

Or he could just own up to the fact that he deliberately oversimplified so he could get a good sound byte :P but that would go against the rules for American political dialogue, I imagine.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks. Rick's kind of mixed account -- the grand metaphorical use of 'see' with something like having seen it on TV (well, if it happened at all) -- is the most plausible take yet, I suppose.

But does it matter? This wasn't a slip or a sloppy formulation, but maybe his single most important speech to date. The journey from "perceived my father march together with Dr. King with my own eyes" to "my father supported Dr. King's efforts in a way that shaped my own views" is a pretty long one. Ollock is right that this would " go against the rules for American political dialogue".

Anonymous said...

I'd dismiss this as a case where a politician misspoke or overreached rhetorically except that we're seeing a pretty clear PATTERN of this stuff from Romney.

Mighty Red Pen said...

A former English major myself, I think my favorite part of this story is that he defended himself by saying that he was an English major. 'Cause obviously we know what we're talkin' about.

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, I resisted comparing that to Bush being a history major.