6

The famous (or infamous) expression "read my lips" is often associated with a phrase spoken by then American presidential candidate George H. W. Bush at the 1988 Republican National Convention who said "Read my lips: no new taxes".

According to Ngram the usage of the expression is from the early decades of the 20th century but its usage increased considerably from the early 80's .It apppears that the future President just used a saying which was already common at that time.

Questions:

1) What actually made the expression popular before George H.W. Bush used it?

2) Is there a specific origin, (the world of the deaf for instance) , from which the expression was derived?

  • 1
    @Mari-LouA - ask any American what "read my lips" reminds them of: – user66974 Feb 18 '16 at 11:12
  • Certainly the expression (in a figurative sense) has been around for a long time -- well before Bush's use -- but it was rarely used prior to 1988. – Hot Licks Feb 20 '16 at 13:54
  • 1
    @HotLicks I agree entirely with your comment up until 'rarely used prior to 1988'. It was common before then too. – Mitch Feb 20 '16 at 20:52
  • @Mitch - Yeah, "rare" is relative. I certainly was familiar with the idiom prior to then and may have used it on occasion. But it wasn't something you heard daily as it was for awhile after Bush's statement. Was a little surprised that it got so much traction, so it may be that it wasn't widely known. – Hot Licks Feb 20 '16 at 21:41
  • @HotLicks it was very widely known before GWHB. 'Huge' was very common before Sanders and Trump's Brooklyn pronunciation made it that much more famous. – Mitch Feb 21 '16 at 4:14
8

This is a history that perhaps should remain unwritten. If you're easily offended, you probably don't want to read it. And so I'll keep it brief. Bush may not appreciate the original source of the popularity of the phrase...which could not help but resonate for the many members of the British and US sub- and counter-cultures listening to him. And laughing.


The exact phrase "read my lips" first appears, in the documentation available to me, in the late 19th century. At that time, it was associated with teaching deaf children. So, this from an 1893 volume titled Summer Meetings: American Association to Promote Teaching of the Deaf is the first instance I could glean from Google Books:

He gave me three girls to teach for a week; one of them was born deaf and dumb. I taught them to say some sentences and to read my lips in learning them.

Isolated appearances with reference to teaching the deaf continue through the first six decades of the twentieth century, and beyond, in books, journals and newspapers.


Then comes the boom in popularity, partially sponsored by a counter-culture film called The Rocky Horror Picture Show, starring Tim Curry et al. A Wikipedia article calls it "the longest-running release in film history". Let's just say it was popular. Very popular among select groups. Lips, in a variety of guises, feature large in the film. For example, a description of the film intro from a transcription:

{ chant "Lips...lips...lips..." and cheer when they appear }
{ "A long long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,
God said: 'Let there be lips,' (let's fuck) and there were.
And they were good. and the lips said 'thank you'. Sing!"
or "And on the eighth day God made lips.
And there were lips, and they were good lips,
and they gave good head"
....

(From the script archives at Zenin's Rocky Horror Picture Show Archive!!!.)

When, in 1978, the star of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Tim Curry, released his first solo album (an 'album' was at that time the medium for recorded music), he titled the album Read My Lips. The title traded heavily on the subtext arising from the artist's having been the star of the film. Its success among the sub- and counter-culture groups that made up the fan base of The Rocky Horror Picture Show was guaranteed. It remains a significant release for many fans, as an article at Why It Matters from September, 2013, testifies:

... Curry recorded some kickass albums for A&M Records.

Read My Lips was the first of the three, released in 1978 when Rocky Horror mania was at its peak. I was one of those Rocky Horror fans, which is why I’m writing this while wearing a corset and garter.


Be all that as it may, which it might or might not, because although William Saffire in a September, 1988 Washington Post article titled "ON LANGUAGE; Read My Lips", seems to contradict it by quoting Tim Curry, he also confirms the origin is "rooted in rock music":

Read my lips is rooted in rock music. In 1978, the actor-singer Tim Curry gave that name to an album of songs written by others (though it did not include a song with that title copyrighted in 1957 by Joe Greene).

Reached in Washington, where he is appearing in ''Me and My Girl,'' Mr. Curry recalled that he got the phrase from an Italian-American recording engineer: ''I would say to him, 'We got it that time,' and he would say, 'Read my lips - we didn't.' That phrase arrested me, and I thought it would make an arresting album title. Be a good name for Mick Jagger's autobiography, come to think of it.''

Saffire goes on to complete his clandestine apologetics--a transparent, but apparently successful effort at damage control--for Bush's use by tracing perhaps more direct and less compromising influences. Notice that Saffire chooses to characterize Bush's use as a "stern intensifier", rather than sarcastic:

  • songwriters, including the pair that wrote the song recorded by Melba Moore;
  • "sports figures snapped up the stern intensifier. The phrase appeared as a nickname suggesting emphasis in orders by a football coach -Mike (Read My Lips) Ditka" (op. cit.);
  • the name of a race horse;
  • a use by a heavyweight boxer in announcing how he would announce his retirement;
  • a use by a White House aide insisting the hostages released by Iran be brought home in planes marked "United States of America";
  • a 1987 use by Senator Albert Gore while questioning the Under Secretary of Defense about missile funding, during which Gore managed a surprising twist by putting the words into the mouth of the Under Secretary: '"You're saying, 'Read my lips, cut the money'." for the Midgetman, said Senator Gore. "Your message is clear."' (op. cit.).
4

The sarcastic usage of the phrase Read my lips almost certainly originated with George H.W. Bush's 1988 "No new taxes" promise.

The phrase appears previously, of course, but generally in the context of attempts to communicate by the hearing-impaired. It occurs in the transcript of a 1950 US Congressional hearing (on the Handicapped Children's Education Act) in a fairly acrimonious exchange between a legislator and a hearing-impaired witness. The legislator asks, in effect, "Do you understand me?" and the reply is "Yes, I do." Both use the phrase "read my/your lips" quite pointedly.

A quick review of scholarly literature (a JSTOR search) turns up numerous references to and plays upon the phrase, all dated after 1988. Hits previous to 1988 all refer to hearing impairment.

(Ngram searches can sometimes be misleading. One Google Books source that seems to point to an earlier loaded lip reading allusion occurs in a book by my old teacher Lucy Maddox, Locating American Studies: The Evolution of a Discipline. Google Books tags it as 1957; however, the book is a 1998 collection of essays spanning the first 40 years of American Studies, and the target phrase read my lips comes from one of the later articles.)

It looks like we have to credit this one to #41.

  • What do you make of this: freakonomics.com/2008/04/03/… – user66974 Feb 18 '16 at 16:04
  • @Josh61 - Fascinating. The 1957 Joe Greene use is almost certainly more figurative than literal. I don't know that I have it in me to watch Magnum Force in its entirety again. :-) – Rob_Ster Feb 18 '16 at 16:14
  • I'm pretty certain I was familiar with the expression, in the figurative sense, well before H.W.'s pronouncement. – Hot Licks Feb 20 '16 at 21:58
4

According to Ngram the usage of the expression is from the early decades of the 20th century but its usage increased considerably from the early 80's. It appears that the future President just used a saying which was already common at that time.

It's hard to know where a phrase like this originated, but I think I can explain the Ngram hits.

In 1985, recording artist Melba Moore released an album called Read My Lips, and the title track of the song garnered her a Grammy nomination.

I have no idea if the future president was an R&B fan, or if one of his speech writers thought the line from the song would make an expedient political sound bite. After all, four years earlier, Walter Mondale scored big in the primaries by using a 3-word excerpt from pop culture (namely, Where's the beef?).

Many of the Ngram hits in the two or three years leading up to the 1988 U.S. Presidential race are actually from Billboard magazine, as both Moore's album and her single climbed the charts*. And it's worth noting that Ms. Moore's use of the phrase in the song has the same defiant, somewhat sarcastic overtones later employed by the future president:

You ought to know where I'm coming from
Because it's here right on the tip of my tongue
Just watch my mouth, figure it out
There's something I'm dying to tell you
Please come as close as you can
I want to make myself crystal clear
So if you still don't understand
Read my lips! Read my lips!

As I said, the reuse of the phrase may just be coincidence, but the song was on the charts a couple years before Mr. Bush galvanized the phrase in his convention speech.


*Marie Osmond was also on the Country charts in 1986 with a song by the same name.

2

From Wikipedia, can't really say how trustworthy it is: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lip_reading

It's both done by people subconsciously - visual cues - i do it sometimes, and by deaf people for obvious reasons. The president (probably) used it because there are people "deaf to reasoning"/uncultured masses or along the lines of it. Original, public relations reasoning was more than likely "Strong expression of no new taxes, that even the deaf could understand".

It's a good old thing, that was adapted into public speak to communicate with the "unintelligent" masses. (Your second question basically answers it.)

As tough and offending that may seem, it is true. Politics took something that worked for deaf people and turned it into a communication tool/gag.

About your first question, there isn't a short way to go about: It's a technique employed by people to read/hear without audible sound or otherwise. Akin to braille for blind people.

protected by tchrist Dec 28 '16 at 22:08

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?