Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally


Posted by Neal on February 21, 2005

In my last post, I mentioned that Tom W. Bell at Agoraphilia wrote about the verb misunderestimate, famously used by George W. Bush, and took it to be a portmanteau word (i.e. a blend) combining misunderstand and underestimate. I then referred to Glen’s comment in response; his basic objection is that misunderestimate doesn’t look like a portmanteau in the same way that brunch or motel does. It just looks like underestimate with the prefix mis- attached to it, which he would then expect to have the meaning, “to incorrectly underestimate”. Now you may be asking, “When would I ever have need of a verb with that meaning?” Well, Glen constructs a rather complicated situation in which such a verb would be appropriate:

[T]here are times when you really *want* to underestimate something — such as, for instance, when you’re guessing the age of someone you want to flatter. Example: Suppose you wish to flatter a woman who appears to be 30. So you say she looks 27 — but it turns out she’s 23. In that case, I would say you misunderestimated her age.

I agree with Glen in theory. However, this scenario is so unusual that I think speakers would be more likely to just use several sentences to convey it, rather than use the single verb misunderestimate, which I think would not help hearers understand the situation. If this situation occurred so commonly and were discussed often enough, then I could see misunderestimate coming to be used to refer to it, but I don’t think that’s happened yet.

Tom, in a later comment, defends misunderestimate as an ordinary blend, pointing out that George W. Bush really does seem to mean “to misunderstand and underestimate”. But then he gets to wondering if there could be other blends like this one, saying:

Just think of all the new words we could create using the “AB + BC = ABC” template that I used in interpreting “misunderestimate”!
bankrupt + rupture = bankrupture (explosively destructive financial insolvency)
welfare + farewell = welfarewell (social service reform)

I’ll bet that your brother has a name for that sort of neologism.

The only name I have is portmanteau or blend. For the more specific version, such that AB+BC is blended into ABC, I don’t have a name. I can’t think of too many words that follow the pattern. In fact, even misunderestimate doesn’t follow it, since A = mis-, C = estimate, but B is either understand or just plain under. The only word I can think of that fits is guesstimate, where A = [g], B = [εs], and C = [tImet]. It’s not one of my favorite blends. Anyone I’ve heard use it could just as easily have used plain estimate; I’ve never heard it used such that it definitely means “to arrive at a number by a combination of guessing and estimating”. Interesting, though, that it also involves the word estimate. I wonder if there’s such a thing as underguesstimate out there. Let’s see… What do you know, there is!

You could also order a big salad for lunch too if you are really worried about it. better to overguesstimate points then underguesstimate.(link)

And how about misunderguesstimate? One guy’s done it:

If we blame everything since Lockerbie on Osama, I’d misunderguesstimate about 4,000 murdered by Al Qaida.(link)

I found a few misoverestimate, too, but used mostly for humorous effect, in talking about President Bush. And for misoverguesstimate? Nothing at all yet.

One Response to “Misunderguesstimation”

  1. […] unlikely to catch on, owing to both its unwieldiness and its meaninglessness — unless I’ve misunderguesstimated it. In theory there is no limit to the number of affixes a word can accumulate, but […]

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