A Political Pathology

Election eve, 2106

American political discourse is rife with incoherence, from Sarah Palin’s word salads to Donald Trump’s staccato bluster. But like a word emerging from an infant’s babbling, misuse can yield a verbal coinage. George W. Bush, hardly a wordsmith, sometimes made a suggestive gaffe.

A word appeared this week that, to our knowledge, hasn’t been seen in print before. Since the new word didn’t draw any notice — vernacular linguists have their hands full lately — we point it out here. On November 2, 2016, The Guardian published a story about Republicans who were threatening to block any future Supreme Court candidate nominated by a Hillary Clinton administration. An interview with Senator Marco Rubio quoted him as saying that he wouldn’t reject such candidates in advance; unlike his intemperate colleagues, he would not, as he put it, “predispose” the nominees.

“No, I don’t believe that we should do that if they propose nominees that are good,” Rubio said. “I’m not going to go and predispose them that way.”

In spite of his denial, Rubio’s statement is equivocal at best; his qualification that the Clinton administration must offer “good” candidates signals his likely rejection of their nominees. In other words, or rather, in Rubio’s own new wording, the senator is very liable to “predispose” them.

Rubio’s solecism presumably draws on the sense of “disposal” as disposal of something. But the preposition of is not the only thing he has disposed of here.

Interestingly, the senator’s use of the word “predispose” seems tacitly linked to the dictionary’s standard notion of “predisposition”; in denying his Republican temperament and obstructionist leanings Rubio disavows his political “predisposition.” If this is true, the new coinage, predispose, is itself born of predisposal: the anticipatory negation of the senator’s own political character, whether through willful mendaciousness or unconscious displacement. Either way, a political pathology.

Future dictionaries may not cite this as verifiable etymology; in retracing word origins lexicographers don’t tend to plumb psychic motives. However, the authorities provide an enlightening psychological link between politics and disease in their definition of predisposition: “a liability or tendency to suffer from a particular condition, hold a particular attitude, or act in a particular way,” according to Oxford; “the state of being likely to behave in a particular way or to suffer from a particular disease,” according to Cambridge.

Our own suggested dictionary entry?

Predispose (v.): to reject something in advance; to throw out beforehand; to trash ahead of time: “Climate skeptics predisposed the future.”


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Filed under Diction, Politics of Discourse

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