The Truth, Mainly - 11/22/2004

Did he say "wisened" or "wizened"?
by Leon Satterfield

I've been wisened to the ways of Washington.

—George W. Bush, as quoted by the A.P., Nov. 5, 2004


Let me lay the groundwork for my startling new theory:

Four centuries ago in Spain, Miguel Cervantes wrote one of the comic masterpieces of world literature, Don Quixote. Quixote is a guy who was obsessed with reading chivalric romances—tales of wandering knights sallying forth to make the world safe for the virtuous. Here, according to Walter Starkie's translation, is the bizarre effect:

"He so immersed himself in those romances that he spent whole days and nights over his books; and thus with little sleeping and much reading his brains dried up to such a degree that he lost the use of his reason."

The result was that he "stumbled upon the oddest fancy that ever entered a madman's brain. He believed that it was necessary, both for his own honour and for the service of the state, that he should become a knight-errant and roam through the world with his horse and armour in quest of adventures, and practise all that had been performed by the knights-errant of whom he had read."

So Quixote, full of righteous zeal and noble intent, absolutely certain of the virtue of his cause now that his brains had dried up, recruited Sancho Panza as his peasant sidekick and they went off to rid the world of evil.

They weren't even interested in oil.

But it turned out that rather than bringing virtue out of evil they more often brought chaos out of order. In an early instance of his battle against evil, Quixote confused windmills with wicked giants and attacked one of them. He lost the battle when his lance got stuck in one of the revolving windmill blades, "dragging him and his horse after it and rolling him over and over on the ground, sorely damaged."

And so on for hundreds of pages and scores of misadventures. It's what happens when your brains dry up.

The relevance of all this is about to become clear. Hang on.

In his first press conference after being elected to a second term, President Bush said he'd been "wisened" by his experience in Washington.

At least that's the way the A.P. spelled it. But "wisened" isn't in my desk dictionary. It's not even in the twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary.

And as linguistically sensitive as the president is, I find it hard to believe he'd utter a word that's not in the O.E.D.

My first thought was that the A.P. and all the newspapers that ran the story were trying to make the president look bad—just another example of the left-wing press diddling with the president's language so it'll seem dumb.

Then I had a second thought: maybe the A.P. misspelled the word. "Wisened" with an s may not be in the dictionary, but "wizened" with a z certainly is. And both words seem to be pronounced the same way, so how could the A.P. know just from listening that the president was speaking a word not in the dictionary instead of speaking a well-established word?

We all know that "wizened" with a z means withered or shriveled or all dried up. And if that's the word the president spoke, he would mean that four years in Washington have desiccated him.

But, you're probably saying, he doesn't look desiccated. And you're right—he doesn't.

So he must have meant that on the inside, not the outside, he's all dried up from being in Washington too long.

Call me quixotic, but I want to believe the president expected us to recognize the veiled reference to Quixote's brains drying up.

Ever the optimist, I like to think what the president was saying was really a cry for help—a "stop me before it's too late" kind of cry. He must have been hoping we'd remember the disastrous effect of a dried-up brain on Quixote.

If reading too many chivalric romances can do that to a brain, imagine what reading too many memos from Dick, Wolfie, and Rummy might do.

I also think—perhaps naively—that the president was in shock over winning the election he didn't much want to win. Surely he was looking forward to leaving the Iraqi mess to Kerry.

The president was, I desperately want to believe, sick to death of playing Don Quixote. He must have figured out that Cervantes' Quixote, armed with only a lance, was hilarious, but that he himself, armed with far more lethal toys, was a character in a tragedy rather than a comedy.

And how about the rest of us? Have our collective brains dried up to the extent that we've lost the use of our reason? Have we become too wizened to care?


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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