In one of the final press briefings from the Bush White House, counselor to the president Ed Gillespie used some peculiar wording yesterday to describe the current mood of his boss:

You know, I would say that he's gotten a little more winsome. I remember somebody asking me back in, like, September, you know, things must be — things must be getting winsome. And I thought, you know, those of us who work here wish it were a little more winsome sometimes.

Say what?

Later in the press conference, after Gillespie had turned the microphone over to White House press secretary Dana Perino, a reporter followed up on Gillespie's word choice. From the official transcript:

Q: And do you mean — when you guys keep using the word winsome, do you mean wistful?

PERINO: Maybe. (Laughter.) I didn't use it. I didn't use the word.

Q: He said he was an English major.

Q: "Charming in a childlike way." (Laughter.)

PERINO: I used the word reflective. Maybe wistful — I think wistful might have been the word.

By that point one of the reporters had clearly checked a dictionary to come up with the definition "charming in a childlike way." The Visual Thesaurus defines winsome in that fashion, and the wordmap shows that it's similar to attractive. Probably not what Gillespie was going for. Wistful, meanwhile, has as one of its meanings "showing pensive sadness," and it's safe to say that Gillespie was trying to convey the pensive reflections of a president finishing eight long years in office.

In Gillespie's defense, he's probably running out of steam himself in the waning days of the administration, and under that kind of strain some verbal entanglement is to be expected (even from an English major like Gillespie). Furthermore, winsome and wistful are prime candidates for a malapropistic mix-up, since they're both low-frequency and rather literary adjectives used to describe personal demeanor.

Winsome goes back to the Indo-European root wen-, meaning "to desire, strive for." The root is also the source of a huge array of other words, like win, wont, wean, wish, Venus, venerate, venom, and venison. One branch of the wen- family tree led to the Old English word wynn, meaning "pleasure, joy." So winsome (or wynsum as it was spelled) originally meant "pleasant, delightful, agreeable." It survived in this sense through the fourteenth century before falling out of general usage.

Winsome was kept alive in Scotland and northern England, however, and it reemerged in the seventeenth century with a slightly different meaning: "pleasing or attractive in appearance." Robert Burns used it this way in his alliterative poem of 1792, "My Wife's a Winsome Wee Thing." From this mainly literary use, it became popularized in its present meaning, with an emphasis on childlike charm or innocence.

The origins of wistful are not quite as clear. It seems to have been connected to the long-forgotten adverb wistly, meaning "with close attention, intently." (Shakespeare used the word a few times, as in this line from Richard II: "And speaking it, he wistly look'd on me.") Likewise, wistful first was understood to mean "closely attentive" in the seventeenth century. But it also sounds a lot like wishful, and the meaning gradually took on a more yearning quality. Now the word suggests a mental state that is both thoughtful and longing, imbued with a melancholy nostalgia for bygone times.

Feel free to leave comments below — but regardless of whether the presidential transition leaves you feeling winsome or wistful, try to keep the conversation civil!

[Update: I had assumed that a reporter had consulted an electronic dictionary to come up with the meaning of winsome, but I just heard from the reporter in question, Olivier Knox of AFP, who'd like to set the record straight:

You misunderestimate the press corps. I knew the definition. The transcript doesn't quite do justice to what I said. First, I'm not that first "Q" after the original question (the one about being an English major), but I did say "because I'm pretty sure you don't mean to say he's charming in a childlike way." The mics in the press room don't always pick up everything that's said.

Very impressive of Mr. Knox to be carrying around such an accurate dictionary definition in his head! I'll never misunderestimate the White House Press Corps again. (Now that Bush is leaving office, does that mean we have to stop saying misunderestimate?)]


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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday January 16th 2009, 12:54 AM
Comment by: David D.
I thought that I had some thoughts, but, you wanted to keep the conversation civil and I just can not do that with this ... this ... this person from Texas. How long has this winsome, wee thing been leaving? How many farewell appearances and last trips and final speeches must I try to absorb out of courtesy? Where did these spokespersons, speaking oddly, come from? Can it all just go away now?
Friday January 16th 2009, 2:47 AM
Comment by: Thorunn S. (Reykjavik Iceland)
Fortunately, we can all look forward to a presidency during which we are not all going to be cringing with embarrassment every other day as a result of some malapropism the head of our country's government or his representatives has publicly uttered. For that, God be praised!
Friday January 16th 2009, 9:37 AM
Comment by: steve S. (brooklyn, NY)
Great article, I was never clear about the difference between the two. Now, if I can slip them each into some business correspondence today I might succed in retaining each various meaning in my verbal memory.

As far as the counselor's linguistic precision, we should be sanguine. These folks pounded us with nucular energy, power and weapons for eight years.
Friday January 16th 2009, 9:40 AM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
I am so glad you picked up on this as well, and wrote about it. I was listening to the press conference live, and I was struck not just by the word winsome (which I did not know the definition of at the time, but decided to use context clues as best possible to determine its meaning), but just how many times it was used -- as if it was the "word of the day."

It felt like yet another one of those surreal Bush press conferences, where new words -- that are already wrapped in meaning through planning meanings -- are released for us all to instantly digest, ponder and, as a result, cognitively bridge to their line of thinking.

Of course, in this case, it might have very well been a "malapropistic mix-up," but based on the heritage of this administration's masterful communication techniques, it'd be difficult to blame me for having my antennae up.

PS - I also couldn't help thinking if they were trying to conflate feeling wistful and the feeling of "you winsome, and you lose some" in an eerie way of conveying a more complex set of thoughts through an intentional malapropism!
Friday January 16th 2009, 10:01 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
Nice thought in your PS, Jon D. -- but I seriously doubt that even an administration as verbally manipulative as Bush's would think up the "winsome, lose some" conceit. At some point, their evasiveness with words must collide with their dullness of intellect, and I think that crash would occur well before they'd ever arrive at your suggested bit of associative dexterity.
Friday January 16th 2009, 12:07 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
Will you folks ever tire of piling on Pres. Bush, even when he was not in the room for the "winsome" "wistful" dispute. The man is leaving and does not need further lumps to take with him. And he certainly does not need it on a site I read for word enlightenment. He has disappointed me, too, at times over recent years, but I will wait for all the books to come out and read what really happened. The man has been President of the USA and the lack of respect for the office has been far more abusive and disgraceful than anything W did. I wish Obama well in his term. I wish him to be respected and treated with fairness. Is that no longer possible?
Friday January 16th 2009, 12:31 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
C'mon folks, I did say that we should try to keep the conversation civil! Let's keep the partisan commentary to a minimum.
Friday January 16th 2009, 12:41 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Oh, and as for Jon D.'s punny suggestion of "you winsome, you lose some," AFP's Olivier Knox tells me that Ken Herman of Cox News made exactly that joke at the time, though it wasn't picked up by the microphones at the briefing. The pun also worked its way into this piece on the Reuters blog.
Friday January 16th 2009, 7:25 PM
Comment by: James M.
Ah, but "wistful" does not fit either, in either of the last two uses in the Gillespie quotation (just try any of its synonyms there).
Friday January 16th 2009, 11:38 PM
Comment by: Kathleen C.
You'all are misoverestimating the entire episode! Whaddya mean, literary? I think "winsome" was intended to signify "winning", an adjective derived from "winner", as in "winning higher poll ratings" or "winning a strong economy" or "winning the war in Iraq AND Afghanistan".
Saturday January 17th 2009, 10:10 AM
Comment by: jeatexas (TX)
It is sad to acknowledge that I come to this site to learn and all I get is opinion not needed.
Saturday January 17th 2009, 1:25 PM
Comment by: Phil K. (West Vancouver Canada)
Ben, thanks for an interesting column. Judging by the comments posted above, it might be useful if perhaps another time, you could write on the many meanings people seem to attach to the idea of civility.

I am reminded of this comment from one of the 20th century's most published and polished speakers and writers, Winston Churchill, who wrote a century ago:

"It is a deplorable thing that, when persons are engaged in acute political controversy, they sometimes allow their language to be rather the means of giving relief to their feelings, than an actual description of the facts."
Saturday January 17th 2009, 7:06 PM
Comment by: Nancy V.
Your article was both interesting and humorous. I am glad to leave the politics out of it and did not take your article as a political commentary, but just another example of how the use of language can be humorous. Perhaps you should have left the civility paragraph out because the way language is used can also incite unintended strong emotions.

I, though, can relate to this type of humour because I have, on occasion, found myself to be guilty of malapropism and the freudian slip. I am grateful my source of income is not dependent on my use of language!
Sunday January 18th 2009, 11:14 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
I enjoyed the column! Thanks!

The quote from Winston Churchill was wonderful! I added it to my online quotes page ( http://donhuntington.com/quotes/index.htm).
Sunday January 18th 2009, 7:29 PM
Comment by: Beryl S. (Schroeder, MN)
I shall miss misunderestimating presidents, reporters, press corps. Whatever.
Monday January 19th 2009, 1:10 AM
Comment by: Michelle B. (bklyn, NY)
:) thanks. This whole conversation, (as per) the presidential transition leaves me feeling quite winsome...
Monday January 19th 2009, 4:23 AM
Comment by: Trish M.
Here is Ireland we are just glad that Barack is moving in today, we have looked at America the last 8 years bewildered, "winsome" did not come to mind
Monday January 19th 2009, 10:26 AM
Comment by: Clarence W.
At the risk of stoking a new fire.....When Ben called for civility, I was certain he was anticipating the type of passion often expressed in this forum over the usage and meaning of the words in question. I expected to see people trying to articulate civilly their position on allowing oneself to let the sound of a word affect the meaning, such as how wistful took on the more yearning aspect of wishful. Or, the equally intense feelings often expressed over the evolution of spelling, such as how wynsum became winsome. Boy did I miss the mark. Oh well. As has been noted, you winsome and lose some.
Monday January 19th 2009, 11:25 AM
Comment by: Philip W.
I'm with Clarence. I do not come to this site for political discussions. There are plenty of sites for that. The topic should have been on the words in question, and not the Commander in Chief.

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