Here's a word for you. I haven't yet heard it in New Zealand but it's becoming popular in the States and when the States start itching we all end up with herpes. And besides, the word is in vogue with the political class and the political class has the same linguistic needs the world over. The word is misspoke.

The virtue of the word is its flexibility, and I wish I'd soberly recorded the many uses to which I've heard it put. But I have generally been too busy to take notes, either screaming at the television, or fainting from disbelief, or reaching for my copy of the Norwegian Naturist in search of a reason to carry on carrying on.

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Misspoke could be a legitimate word. We all make mistakes when we talk. We say Liberia, perhaps, when we mean Lebanon. There is no intention to deceive, and "I'm sorry, I misspoke" would be just fine as an apology. Everyone knows that the tongue slips. But that of course is not how politicians use it.


Hillary Clinton led the way. Should we be surprised? No, I don't think so either. During the election campaign of 2016 she told a story of landing by helicopter under sniper fire in, I think, Yugoslavia (though of course I apologise if I have miswritten). The implication of the story was that, despite her sex, she had within her the stuff that commanders in chief are made of.

But that stuff turned out to be mendacity. For some pesky journalist discovered videotape of the event of which she boasted and there wasn't a sniper to be seen or heard. When the tape was shown on television, Mrs Clinton had no way out. The evidence was irrefutable. Her only option was to turn around, face her accusers and admit she'd lied.

"I misspoke," she said.

It was pure weasel. The word acknowledged that she had erred - she had no choice on that count - but implied that she had merely committed a verbal lapse. Rather than inventing those pinging bullets in order to enhance her image, she'd just suffered a slip of the tongue.

Any one of us could have made the same mistake. And somewhere in the eternal register another tick went into falsehood's column, and another form of slithering evasion was released into the world to proliferate.

I have never heard Trump use the word because I have never heard Trump acknowledge any sort of error, but another Republican made use of misspoke last week. The gentleman in question was Rick Santorum, a former senator, a former candidate for the presidency, and a devout Christian with all-star American teeth.

Former Pennsylvania United States Senator Rick Santorum said students who are rallying for gun control should instead learn CPR to help protect their classmates during a school shooting. AP File Photo
Former Pennsylvania United States Senator Rick Santorum said students who are rallying for gun control should instead learn CPR to help protect their classmates during a school shooting. AP File Photo

You are probably aware of the kids from the Florida high school who responded to being shot at with an assault rifle - an attack that killed 17 of their peers - by campaigning to have the weapons banned. They organised a vast rally in Washington, which President Trump addressed by flying away in Air Force One and hiding in a club full of millionaires.

But Mr Santorum is a braver man than Trump. He didn't earn an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association by backing down. Mr Santorum went on television to criticise the uppity kids.


Rather than grandstanding for the cameras, said Mr Santorum, they would be better employed doing something that would be of practical benefit during the next school massacre, such as, and I quote, taking CPR classes.

Now then, the sort of assault rifle that was used in the Florida shooting and that the kids want banned is a powerful beast. Its bullets don't just pierce flesh. They tumble through the body with irresistible percussive force. They effectively vaporise internal organs. And when your liver or lungs have been vaporised CPR is of little help.

The outcry from surgeons, parents and other maniacs was so loud that even Mr Santorum heard it and felt he ought to say something. He duly went on television. I misspoke, he said.

And lo, a new meaning was found for this versatile verb. Mr Santorum was not using it as a euphemism for "I lied". Mr Santorum used it to mean "whoops, I said exactly what I meant to say but then discovered that people didn't like it. So I'd better pretend it was a mistake". But his only mistake was to give us a glimpse of the blackened malice of his soul.

So misspoke can mean either that you lied but can't bear to admit it, or that you spoke the truth as you saw it but now want to retract it. And a word that flexible is sure to travel the world.