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A linguist noticed an odd thing about Marco Rubio’s malfunction in the GOP debate.

Kidmograph via Tumblr

Sure, it was weird when Rubio said a version of one talking point—“Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing”—four times. But it’s also weird he said “dispel with.” That’s not a thing. 

University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman points out that “‘[dispel] with’ in the relevant sense doesn’t occur in the 520 million words of the BYU Corpus of Contemporary American English,  although forms of dispel occur 1,585 times.” Rubio probably meant “dispense with,” since the words sound similar and have similar meanings.

What does this mean for Rubio and the emerging conventional wisdom that Rubio is a preprogrammed robot? A few possibilities:

  1. Rubio is not actually a preprogrammed robot, because such a malaprop indicates he has not memorized lines written by a speechwriter, who would know how to use “dispel.”
  2. Rubio is a robot, and has been programmed to repeat four variations of one talking point. A glitch caused the verb from one version to be substituted in another.
  3. The Rubiobot has been programmed to sound fancy. In the rush of campaign season, programmers concluded the minimum viable product was a bot that used fancy words, even if the bot did not use them precisely.
  4. The Rubiobot is working perfectly. The Rubiobot is super advanced AI, meant to mimic the subtle mistakes and quirks in human speech.