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.
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?)]