Investigative lust, linguistic curiosity

William Safire wrote in the New York Times Magazine of 15.5.94:

“A hard-edged question was posed to Hillary Rodham Clinton at her Whitewater news conference: what about “the suggestion in the R.T.C. memorandum . . . you and your husband knew or should have known that Whitewater was not cash-flowing and that notes or debts should have been paid”?

“Shoulda, coulda, woulda,” the First Lady replied. “We didn’t.”

Some journalists narrowed their eyes at this airy dismissal of financial responsibility in land speculation at the place Mrs. Clinton prefers to refer to as “northern Arkansas.” My own investigative lust was instantly replaced, however, by linguistic curiosity: Whence the reduplication shoulda, coulda, woulda?

The order of words in this delicious morsel of dialect varies with the user. On the sports pages of The Washington Post of Dec. 7, 1978, Gerald Strine wrote about the New England Patriots football team: “The Pats coulda, shoulda and woulda been ahead of the Cowboys by at least 16-3 at halftime . . . but three field goals were blown.”

Eleven years later, in a United Press International account of another football game, the phrase again led with coulda, as a shamefaced kicker was quoted: “I should have kicked the extra point, but coulda, shoulda, woulda doesn’t do it.”

By the 90’s, football players were fumbling the order. Said a Notre Dame tackle, Aaron Taylor, offside on his subject-verb agreement: “There’s no excuses. Woulda, shoulda, coulda is not going to cut it.”

During the last two decades, an author told Vernon Scott of The Hollywood Reporter he planned a “Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda book”; a retailer opined to Investor’s Business Daily about the decline of Carter Hawley stores: “There are shoulda-beens, coulda-beens, woulda-beens, but the fact is they didn’t meet the retail revolution that happened in the past five years.” And the funk-and-roll singer Anthony Kiedis (misidentified as a “rap singer” by the incognoscenti) wrote and sang in 1991, “Shoulda been, coulda been, woulda been dead if I didn’t get the message going to my head.”

We have here an elision field. Elide, rooted in the Latin for “to strike out,” means “to omit”; in speech, an elision is the omission of letters and sounds to produce compressions like don’t and couldn’t, or as the would-be boxer played by Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront” said, “I coulda been a contender.”

In this rhyming compound, a triple elision does the hat trick: although each elision expresses something different, when taken together, the trio conveys a unified meaning. Shoulda, short for should have (and not should of, which lexies call a variant but I call a mistake), carries a sense of correctness or obligation; coulda implies a possibility, and woulda denotes conditional certainty, an oxymoron: the stated intent to have taken an action if only something had not intervened.

These meanings were explored separately in a 1977 song by the country singer Tammy Wynette, whose earlier song “Stand By Your Man”* was unintentionally derogated by Mrs. Clinton during the 1992 campaign. In “That’s the Way It Could Have Been,” Ms. Wynette’s chorus goes: “That’s the way it could have been [ possibility ] ./Oh, that’s the way it should have been [ correctness ] ./If I had met you way back then,/That’s the way it would have been [ conditional certainty ] .”

Lexicographers have been tracking the individual elisions for decades. First came woulda, translated into Standard English in Dialect Notes in 1913: “Would a went, would have gone.” Theodore Dreiser introduced coulda and the solid woulda in his 1925 novel, “An American Tragedy”: “I coulda chucked my job, and I woulda.” A 1933 book on crime used the third elision: “You shouldda seen him.”

Taken together, the term means “Spare me the useless excuses.” I reached Mrs. Clinton through her aides, each of whom was surprised at the good-natured nature of my follow-up question, to get her definition. Mrs. Clinton passes the word that she heard the expression often in Arkansas, and interprets it to mean: “People can tell you that you should have, or could have, or would have, but the question is: Did you or didn’t you?”

In this way, all problematical or ethical fine points are overridden in what the Hollywood set would call “cutting to the chase.” A related term, though not synonymous, was used often by Franklin Roosevelt to deflect the entrapping queries of journalists: iffy question. Hypothetical questions, using the subjunctive “if . . . would” construction, can draw a political figure into deep water; this can be escaped by the politician with F. D. R.’s “That’s an iffy question.” In early 1964, when Robert Kennedy was asked if he would accept a Vice Presidential nomination on President Johnson’s ticket, he played on its speculative basis with “The question reminds me of my brother. When he was posed with such a question, he used to say that is like asking a girl if she would marry that man if he proposed.”

The shoulda, coulda, woulda phrase (accepting Mrs. Clinton’s order as standard) has a wistfully resigned connotation that was evoked in 1854 by the poet John Greenleaf Whittier in “Maud Muller”:

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,

The saddest are these: “It might have been!” “.

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