White House press secretary Sean Spicer attempted to clarify an ominous phrase used by President Donald Trump on Thursday — but his answer left people scratching their heads instead.
Earlier on Thursday, Trump described his efforts to remove unauthorized immigrants from the US as "a military operation," a phrase that seemed to contradict efforts from White House officials who said the military would not be involved with the deportation plans.
When asked what Trump meant, Spicer said Trump was using the word "military" as an adjective, adding that Trump meant his orders would be carried out "in a very streamlined and efficient manner."
"The president was using that as an adjective. It's happening with precision and in a manner in which it's being done very, very clearly," Spicer said.
"And so just to be clear on his use of that phrase," he added, "and I think the way it's being done by all accounts is being done with very much a high degree of precision, and in a flawless manner."
According to Merriam-Webster, look-ups for the word "military" spiked immediately following Spicer's comments. However, Spicer's take seems to put him at odds with the dictionary, in which the adjective "military" means "relating to soldiers, arms, or war."
Belying Spicer's comment is data from the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which has 450 million words spoken on television and written in books and print media over the past three decades. Out of the hundreds of documented uses of the term "military operation," none of them seem to specifically suggest a level of precision.
Trump may have been aiming for the phrase "military precision," linguist Ben Zimmer told Business Insider, but that wouldn't necessarily excuse him, either.
"Trump could have said, 'It's an operation carried out with military precision,' and that would have been understood as conveying the type of precision associated with the military," Zimmer said in an email. "But saying 'it's a military operation' does not convey that at all."
Spicer also could have meant to conjure a different word altogether, New York Times columnist Brendan Nyhan and Cornell law professor Josh Chafetz said on Twitter.
Reassuring that the White House Press Secretary can't distinguish an adjective from a metaphor— Brendan Nyhan (@BrendanNyhan) February 23, 2017
Pssssst! Spicer! The word you're looking for is "metaphor."— Josh Chafetz (@joshchafetz) February 23, 2017
Without further clarification, it's impossible to tell exactly what Trump meant with his "military operation" comment. In language, like with any successful military operation, it helps to be precise.
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