Timothy Noah on the annoying phrase which politicians seem to overuse:
I do not count myself among those who hate President Bush. But I do hate the expression, “make no mistake.” It’s a bully-boy phrase, meant to warn that the speaker really means what he is saying. But shouldn’t we always mean what we say—or, if we’re politicians, at least pretend to? Even if you buy into the phrase’s swagger, it isn’t half so creative as “read my lips,” which speechwriter Peggy Noonan put into George H.W. Bush’s mouth when he promised not to raise taxes. (“Read my lips” had to be retired after Bush père broke that promise in 1990, but that’s hardly Noonan’s fault.) “Read my lips” is funny—unless, of course, it’s spoken to a deaf person—and swagger always comes across better when it’s leavened with humor. “Make no mistake,” on the other hand, are the words not merely of a bully, but of a bully who lacks panache. It practically begs for a defiant response. Listen, buddy, I’ll make a mistake whenever I goddamn well feel like it. And, of course, it’s especially galling coming from Bush, whose presidency has been one long string of mistakes, most especially the one we’re currently grappling with in Iraq.
When George B. Bush uses such a phrase, I can explain it away by pointing to his general verbal idiocy. But Obama – aren’t his speeches a model of American rhetoric? Do politicians slip to such barbarous language when they tire at the end of the day?
To those who say. Politicians shouldn’t be simplifying the argument of the opposition. Generally, Obama does not do this. But lately I’ve noticed the insidious phrase “To those who say” being slipped into his political speeches more often. Who are those people? What are you saying? Why should we accept your version of what they say? Why do we care about those people who say them? Can we just talk about the argument itself (and leave aside the anonymous demons who are always serving as straw men for weak-minded politicians)?
Recommended alternative: If you are tempted to start a sentence with the phrase “make no mistake,” instead of doing that, simply unbutton your shirt, pound your chest and start yelling aggressively. That technique is much more effective at conveying emphasis.
See also: Nonsequitur’s posts about Straw Men.
Complaint: When I decided to write a separate post about “make no mistake,” I first googled the phrase to see if anybody did it already. Timothy Noah beat me by a few years (darn it). Google breeds intellectual laziness and a sort of humility. I half-expected to find an internet domain www.makenomistake.com consisting of one rhetorician’s tireless (and monomaniacal) effort to rid the earth of this pesky phrase. It always is reassuring to realize after googling that no one has come anywhere close to uttering the thought you intended to blog about (in English at least). It is as though you have accidentally unearthed a rare artifact from a different eon. Perhaps I am merely restating Kakheperresenb’s Complaint ; I prefer to think of it as knowing what not to waste valuable writing time on. (I can guarantee that the world has enough half-informed commentary about global warming/Obama/anti-DRM rants/Scorcese for me to need to do it.
July 20 Update: In an interview with Jim Lehrer, Obama said “make no bones about it,” indicating that he is probably aware that “making no mistake” is a stale and empty phrase. To use a Bush41 expression, my gut tells me that presidents should not be making pronouncements about domestic bone production.