Stephen Colbert on Alicegate: Chewbacca in Wonderland

Stephen Colbert weighed in the Obama White House Alice in Wonderland Halloween Party scandal on last night’s The Colbert Report. It’s worth watching just for Colbert’s epic nerdy rant about Chewbacca in Wonderland:

Alicegate? Scandal involving “lavish” White House Alice in Wonderland Party

Star-studded photo from the White House 2009 Halloween Party

Mad Tea Parties and politics are in the news again, but this time thrown by the Democrats. President Obama’s 2009 Alice in Wonderland-themed “star-studded” Halloween party is central stage in a mini-scandal, coming to light because of details in a new book called “The Obamas” by Jodi Kantor of the New York Times. Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing criticizers of the President are claiming the party was secret and extravagant. The White House has responded that the party was for military families and not at all secret. From the Huffington Post article “Limbaugh: Media Helping Obamas Cover Up Secrets“:

“The Obamas,” by New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor, has already prompted a fierce response from the White House to its stories of infighting between Michelle Obama and her husband’s staff. But the media has latched onto another story in the book. Kantor alleges that the White House deliberately downplayed a lavish, Tim Burton-designed Halloween party held in 2009 so as not to appear out of touch with economically struggling voters.

Though they did not mention the details of the party in official briefings at the time, the White House has pushed back on this story as well, saying that the news of the party was mentioned in a Tennessee paper and on a Johnny Depp fan website.

And another Huffington Post article “Obama’s ‘Alice In Wonderland’ White House Party With Tim Burton” describes the party in more detail:

Kantor writes (via the NY Post) that Burton made up the room “in his signature creepy-comic style… He had turned the room into the Mad Hatter’s tea party, with a long table set with antique-looking linens, enormous stuffed animals in chairs, and tiered serving plates with treats like bone-shaped meringue cookies… Fruit punch was served in blood vials at the bar. Burton’s own Mad Hatter, the actor Johnny Depp, presided over the scene in full costume, standing up on a table to welcome everyone in character.”

George Lucas, the book says, sent over the original Chewbacca costume for the occasion. Kantor also writes that the President and First Lady’s daughters, Malia and Sasha, and their friends were entertained with a magic show in the East Room.

Local children and military families were also invited.

I don’t remember if anyone at the LCSNA was aware of the party, but we certainly weren’t invited. Pictures of the party are on the White House website.

CNN Linguist cringes at 2010’s portmanteaus

Linguist Robert Beard (the author of The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English, which I’ve heard is a bit prejudiced against the Anglo-Saxon) complains in CNN’s 2010 Year in Review that his sacred English Language took another “fresh beating” this year, discussing the prevalence¬†of new portmanteau words.

New words and constructions like “Obamacare,” “WikiLeaks,” “lamestream,” “shovel-ready,” “sexting,” and many others like them were uttered or typed and in minutes spread across the globe.

Makes one wonder: Have we been beating English into a new shape, or just beating it up? There is, after all, a difference between the games we play with new words, which can be amusing — even though they often get out of hand — and the more subtle changes that often lead to confusion and offensiveness.

Beard then goes on to cite Carroll and relay the modern political history of portmanteau malapropisms:

Coined by Lewis Carroll, the term “portmanteau word” is one that carries two words inside itself. Portmanteaus may simply be funny games we play with words or errors that we should avoid.

When we speak, we go to our mental dictionaries for the right words. If we find two words with similar meanings or pronunciations, we have to make a split-second choice of which to use. President George W. Bush’s mind once found itself having to choose between “miscalculated” and “underestimated” as he spoke, but failed to reach a decision in time, so he uttered “misunderestimated”.

Sarah Palin’s famous portmanteau “refudiate” is similar. “Refudiate” is a speech error that many others before her have made by blending “refute” and “repudiate.” That it has been around for ages but has yet to make it into a dictionary tells us that it is a speech error we should stop discussing and let pass for what it is: a funny but erroneous portmanteau.

Portmanteaus may be “funny games” (I’ll take that as a compliment), and annoying ones can make it into mainstream parlance quickly thanks to new media, but there’s no need to be curmudgeonly about a year which saw many strange and entertaining new coinages. Palin’s defense of her accidental wordsmithing (which was later named 2010 Word of the Year by the New Oxford American Dictionary) was to tweet: “‘Refudiate,’ ‘misunderestimate,’ ‘wee-wee’d up.’ English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!”

Tea Party gone mad

Drew Friedman's illustration in The Nation

It seemed inescapable that at some point someone would compare the Tea Party movement to Lewis Carroll’s famous tea party. Richard Kim’s article “The Mad Tea Party“, which will appear in the April 12th version of The Nation, never needs to mention Carroll or Alice, but it gave illustrator Drew Friedman cause for the inevitable image of Glenn Beck as the Hatter. It’s a good look for him.