Bill Clinton has enriched the American political vocabulary in so many ways, giving us (along with jokes involving knee-pads and Buddhist nuns) such expressions as “I feel your pain,” “conduct that was not appropriate,” and “depends on what your definition of is is.”
The last example, along with the President’s celebrated quibbles on the meaning of words like “sexual” and “alone” inspired his more loyal followers to praise him for “parsing” his sentences carefully, by which they apparently meant choosing his words in such a way as to avoid a jail term for perjury. How persuasive these efforts prove will depend on how Americans will parse “parse.”
When I went to school, the schoolmarms still clung to the definition given in the OED:
To describe (a word in a sentence) grammatically, by stating the part of speech, inflexion, and relation to the rest of the sentence; to resolve (a sentence, etc.) into its component parts of speech and describe them grammatically.
Parsing is an honorable, if stodgy, exercise that used to consume half of an intermediate Latin class. What Clinton was doing with his words would better be described by such phrases as “splitting hairs,” “logic chopping,” and “mincing words.” But all those expressions, appropriate as they are, suggest that the Commander-in-Chief is being sneaky or underhanded and may even be dissimulating.
In other words, the President’s friends cannot even be honest when they admit he is lying. The next step will be to issue a statement denying that Bill Clinton ever parsed a sentence in his life, which will be the first true statement made by this administration.