Linguistics is much more fun with animated gifs and swearing

Mitt Romney takes ’em bankrupt. The rest of us do a double-take.

“And one thing that the president said, which I want to make sure that we understand, he said that I said we should take Detroit bankrupt.”

Wait, what?

Bankruptcy For Everyone!

I only watched the first five minutes of the second presidential debate. I had to leave the room after that because I was at risk of yelling obscenities at the TV, which would have been incivil to my roommates.

Sociopathic and focus group-tested emotional manipulation leaves me at best uncomfortable when it comes from liberal politicians. From conservative politicians it’s like getting an ice-pick rammed into my brain repeatedly. I consume my politics in text form, where you can strip away all that robotic body language, timed emotional pauses, and diabolical grinning.

Anyway, fortunately for me, five minutes was all I needed to catch this bizarre excerpt from Mitt Romney’s debate performance:

ROMNEY: And one thing that the president said, which I want to make sure that we understand, he said that I said we should take Detroit bankrupt. And that’s right. My plan was to have the company go through bankruptcy like 7-Eleven did and Macy’s and Condell (ph) Airlines and come out stronger. And I know he keeps saying, you want to take Detroit bankrupt. Well, the president took Detroit bankrupt. You took General Motors bankrupt. You took Chrysler bankrupt. So when you say that I wanted to take the auto industry bankrupt, you actually did.

The first time he said “take Detroit bankrupt,” I was jolted. But I figured it was just a case of misspeaking on the fly. That happens. I do it, you do it, and while Binders Full of Women is indisputably hilarious, you’ve gotta cut a guy a break.

Bankrupt ALL the companies? :(

Then he used the construction again. And again. And again and again and again!

By the sixth time I was like, “Dude, those words coming out of your mouth are not English. Why are you doing this?”

Six times in one paragraph is not misspeaking. He was either doubling-down hard on that error, to the point of self-parody, or it wasn’t an error at all.

It was a natural part of his English idiom.

A Brief History of Bankruptcy

And here’s where my linguist brain kicked into overdrive, because now we have something that needs explaining: where the hell did Romney get this “take X bankrupt” construction from?

It certainly is not a standard part of the political discourse. Obama independently used the words “bankrupt” or “bankruptcy” during the debate two times:

OBAMA: Now when Governor Romney said we should let Detroit go bankrupt. I said we’re going to bet on American workers…

The phrase “let X go bankrupt” gets only a measly 35,300,000 hits on Google, but I think we can safely assume this is standard English.

OBAMA: You can invest in a company, bankrupt it, lay off the workers, strip away their pensions, and you still make money.

Here Obama uses bankrupt as a transitive verb, which is the oldest use of the word still current in modern English. It sounds a little academic to my ears, but that fits Obama’s character and education.

In any case, this usage is well-justified. The illustrious Oxford English Dictionary tells the storybankrupt, originally banqueroute from French meaning “bank broken,” first appears in English writing as “make bankrupt,” a transitive expression using the light verb make (a light verb is a verb that has little meaning unto itself other than to say, “Hey! This thing I’m attached to! I’m making it verby now! We’re verbing it!”).

The first attestation of “make bankrupt” was in 1533. By 1552, we have attestations of bankrupt as a transitive verb all on its own, used in roughly the same way as Obama used it in the above excerpt.

Only in 1566 do we start to see uses of bankrupt as an adjective, as in “he is bankrupt.” That usage was not well-established until the 17th century.

So Obama’s merely playing it old-school here.

There was one further excerpt where Obama used bankrupt and here’s where things get interesting.

Immediately following Romney’s extended “take X bankrupt” riff, Obama was given a chance to reply by Candy Crowley. Here is what he said, with a transcript from my linguist roommate Mischa (thanks Mischa!) that includes pauses and stutters:

OBAMA: Candy, what Governor Romney said… just isn’t true. He wanted to… take them… [m..] into bankruptcy… without providing them.. any way to stay open.

Here’s what I suspect was happening in Obama’s brain: “Time to reply. First off, this ass is a liar, let’s get that in there. Now I’ll introduce my counterattack by quoting him on what he just said, that he wanted to… take? We’re… taking them? Does “take” go with “bankrupt”? That’s not English, is it? Fuck, fuck, have to finish the sentence, ummmm…. into bankruptcy. There we go. Phew.”

It sounds like Obama’s own brain choked on the phrase “take X bankrupt” mid-sentence and he needed to pause a second so he could reformulate the rest of the sentence into something resembling the English that the rest of us speak.

How Weird Is “Take X Bankrupt”? Let’s Do Science To It

It wasn’t just me and Obama that had a problem with “take X bankrupt.” Three of my roommates independently commented that this was weird, weird enough that they had to pause the debate mid-DVR and hash out their thoughts on why he might have said that. A Facebook survey (from among friends who are uniformly anti-Romney) also turned up nothing but puzzlement. One friend said he could parse it, but only if he imagined it coming out of the mouth of a businessman.

It’s not just us. Twitter’s littered with tweets from people accusing Romney of illiteracy or Bush-style malapropism. One guy responded to the protests at the ungrammaticality of this by saying that that “[Romney] was being everyman.”


Sir Wilfrid Laurier disagrees. You should feel bad.

AHAHAHA no. He was not.

Let’s compare:

“let it go bankrupt” – 162,000 results on Google

“bankrupt it” – 289,000 results

“take it bankrupt” – …153 results.

And mind you, those are post-debate hits. So the two phrases that Obama used are approximately 1,000 times more ‘everyman’ than what came out of Romney’s mouth.

Are you unwilling to accept Google as a source of linguistic data? That’s because you’re silly and wrong, but no matter — let’s take the British National Corpus instead. This is the best, most comprehensive corpus of modern English, both spoken and written, that we have on hand.

Zero results for “take it bankrupt” or “take them bankrupt” in the BNC.


But… but… but… BNC records British English. And Romney is an American!

Fine, let’s use the Corpus of Contemporary American English. It’s produced by Brigham Young University, so please shut up about bias, thanks.

Zero hits. Zero.

Corpus of Contemporary American Soaps, which is a repository of informal American English? Also brought to you by BYU? Surely we’ll find our ‘everyman’ here if anywhere?

Nope. Zero hits.

So whatever this is, it is not a normal part of English speech.

I collected every example of “take it bankrupt” that I could find on Google that was not a direct consequence of the debate discussion. I excluded examples from sites where the writer was clearly not a native speaker of English — there were several of these.

Controlling for the above factors, I found seven uses of “take it bankrupt” in total.

On the entire internet.

All of them occurred in comments or blog posts:

lol HAHAHA now numbnut why would they take it private? why not just bankrupt the dam thing??? they keep it and you get nothing…

There are no creditors to take it bankrupt.. There are no loans you idiot. I can’t believe you continue to talk. How embarassing, you should send a message to your mother. Tell her that you are sorry that you have damaged her name.

i think it’s getting to be like going to hollywood to become an actor. sure a few make it big but a lot of people wait tables or do porn or whatever while they’re waiting for a break. i think there are lot of factors working against making a good living doing portrait/event photography. maybe if you incorporate and take out a huge loan and then take it bankrupt.

The same people that hucked Facebook are bashing BBY. They are everywhere, so it makes me think they are paid. The 2Q2013 was just about the same as 2Q2012. In fact if you add depreciation, subtract capital expenditures, and add non-cash expenses, they did a little bit better. What is troubling is the drop in cash as “Other Expense”. They may be trying to take it bankrupt to get it really cheap

…only he left out the comments about the spammer problems. The barbarians are not just inside the gates, they are taking over the castle. I sometimes wonder if the VCs who control Gogle aren’t looking to crash the company and take it bankrupt so they can take back complete ownership of the IP. Then they’ll wait a bit and come out again under a new name, new banner and with, hopefully, much tighter controls on who gets to advertise, who gets to show ads and who gets to participate in what should be truly helpful forums. While they’re at it, in the vacuum left by Google’s demise, they should be able to crank the advertising rates back up where they belong. On the other hand, with so many other, new, wannabe advertising companies out there, Google’s lunch is being eaten right now. Any perceivable gap in the continuum may cause Google to completely lose its place in the pile.

Thinking about buying a restaurant that has a lot of debt. If I buy the corp and take it bankrupt, does that affect the liquor license?

Broken Top. A stalking horse, all the way.

I hope none of the residents of BT are poker players, because I think they’re being bluffed, and not even a particularly good bluff. Let the SOB buy it, and try to develop it. Let the city and state shut down his plans, I wouldn’t even hire a lawyer. Let him take it bankrupt, and then the good people of Broken Top can buy it for half the price. On second thought, hire a lawyer only make sure that he keeps it at “A” status, and let him stew.

The US taxpayers (and Canada) are paying billions to relocate production to China. GM value is (was) in its name only. The UAW are fools. They should have demanded to take 100% of the company then the UAW could take it bankrupt. At least the workers would have been 100% shareholders and their pensions would be tied to the eventual success of building GM cars in China. Just wait, the under-funded pension obligations of GM (and everyone else) will also need another bailout. Ever wonder how the Railroad Retirement Board got started? Same thing, only with trains.

Are you noticing a certain… tilt to these quotes? I sure am.

Given that we have a very limited corpus of naturalistic usage data to work from, here’s what I think we can derive.

“Take X bankrupt” means to intentionally send a company into bankruptcy for strategic reasons. It has a certain undertone of shady business dealings, with an implication that the agent is not acting above-board and is not pursuing this as an option of last resort.

Which brings us back to one of Obama’s quotes from earlier in this post:

OBAMA: And Governor Romney’s says he’s got a five-point plan? Governor Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan. He has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules. That’s been his philosophy in the private sector, that’s been his philosophy as governor, that’s been his philosophy as a presidential candidate.

You can make a lot of money and pay lower tax rates than somebody who makes a lot less. You can ship jobs overseas and get tax breaks for it. You can invest in a company, bankrupt it, lay off the workers, strip away their pensions, and you still make money.

That’s exactly the philosophy that we’ve seen in place for the last decade. That’s what’s been squeezing middle class families.

And we have fought back for four years to get out of that mess. The last thing we need to do is to go back to the very same policies that got us there.

My conjecture is that Romney so easily rattled off the phrase “take X bankrupt” because it is a standard part of his vocabulary from his years at Bain Capital. Bankruptcy to him is a lucrative process for slimming down and shaping up companies. An early morning, boot camp-style fitness course. A way to shed that pesky dead weight.

You know, like employees, health care, and pensions. Really unsightly to the modern corporate profile.

And the rest of us? The rest of us had so much trouble accepting this as grammatical English because this is not the way a normal person, even a normal businessperson, thinks about bankruptcy.

It is only a certain class of person who can wave off the total collapse of a company’s or an individual’s relations with their creditors and stakeholders as a kind of getting back in shape for the summer season.

And I don’t want that person anywhere near the Oval Office.

7 Responses to “Mitt Romney takes ’em bankrupt. The rest of us do a double-take.”

  1. Mandalyn X

    so i too was… befuddled by the way this was phrased. all i could come up with as an explanation of the peculiar construction was similar, somewhat, to yours: that romney was attempting to imply that instead of a company “*going* bankrupt”, the suggestion there being that through actions of its own, it became bankrupt, that to “*take* bankrupt” would mean that they were forcefully caused to enter bankruptcy by some outside entity. this kinda suggests there was some sort of malintent behind the bankruptcies. which still, really, makes no sense in his context… along with most of the rest of what he said.

    • skrzkrk

      You are definitely on to something there in the way the difference in the use of the verb and the interpretation of what ‘bankrupt’ means. I hope to follow up in another post that goes into greater theoretical linguistic detail about this, because there’s some nice lexical semantic work on the subject that looks applicable to this situation.

  2. nolandda

    (a) You have an awesome blog about language?!? Why didn’t I know this?
    (b) The “take X bankrupt” thing was about something said in the debate? Interesting…
    (c) Nice analysis.

    • skrzkrk

      a) I announced it on my Facebook page, but it’s only been up for, like, three days. Sorry you didn’t get the news though!
      b) It was said so –much–. That’s what really threw me.
      c) Thank you!


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