Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

St. Patrick’s Day will cavort through a merry jig tomorrow. So today I am throwing some bull — not just any kind of bull, but an Irish bull. And while I’m at it, I’ll toss in a stampede of Irish bulls.

What is an Irish bull? I’m glad I asked me that. Some dismiss it as a silly blunder born on the Emerald Isle. Others more tellingly describe an Irish bull as a statement fueled by a delightful absurdity that sparks forth a memorable truth. When asked the difference between an Irish bull and any other kind of bull, Professor John Pentland Mahaffey of Dublin University replied, “An Irish bull is always pregnant,” providing a definition that is itself an example of the form defined.

Among the first and most famous specimens is a pronouncement by Sir Boyle Roche, who once asked, “Why should we do anything to put ourselves out of the way for posterity? What has posterity ever done for us?” Irish politics, literature and folklore are replete with pronouncements that jump to a confusion:

  • An Irishman is never at peace except when he’s fighting.
  • An Irishman will die before letting himself be buried outside of Ireland.
  • I’d give my right arm to be ambidextrous.
  • Your Hannar, I was sober enough to know I was dhroonk.
  • Gentleman, it appears to be unanimous that we cannot agree.
  • Half the lies our opponents tell about us are not true.
  • Thank God I’m an atheist.
  • God bless the Holy Trinity.
  • May you never live to see your wife a widow.
  • I can resist anything but temptation.
  • This piece is chock full of omissions.
  • He is the kind of opponent who would stab you in front of your face and then stab you in the chest when your back is turned.
  • I marvel at the strength of human weakness.

Any implications that the Irish have cornered the bull market are completely unwarranted. Some of the best specimens of taurine eloquence thrive far from the green fields of Ireland. Jazz pianist and composer Eubie Blake smoked from the age of six and refused to drink water. On his 100th birthday he observed, “If I had known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

Here are a few more examples of corn-fed American bulls:

  • Always be sincere, even if you don’t mean it. -Harry S. Truman
  • My vision is to make California the most diverse state on earth, and we have people from every planet on the earth in this state. -Gov. Gray Davis
  • I think that gay marriages are something that should be between a man and a woman. -Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • There are known knowns. These are things that we know we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know. -Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
  • We have here two incredibly credible witnesses. –Vice President Joe Biden, who once exclaimed, “That’s the most unheard-of thing I ever heard of!”
  • We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it. –Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, regarding the Affordable Care Act
  • Always go to other people’s funerals. Otherwise, they won’t come to yours. -baseball legend Yogi Berra
  • Good pitching always stops good hitting, and vice versa. -Casey Stengel
  • Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will have me as a member –Groucho Marx
  • It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens. –Woody Allen
  • Anybody who goes to a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined. –Samuel Goldwyn

This is why the sagacious Hobbes, the insightful tiger who prowled the late lamented comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” once predicted that “We can eventually make language a complete impediment to everything.”