Fiddling with the radio while driving through Nova Scotia years ago, I came across a programme devoted to the difficulties Jean Chrétien, then Canada's prime minister, had with spoken English. Mr Chrétien had the excuse of coming from French-speaking Québec, though I also remember one wag saying he was the first Canadian premier to have mastered neither of his country's principal languages. His slips of the tongue became known as chretienneries.
Without making a detailed study of the sayings of Mr Chrétien, we cannot be sure whether the claims that he routinely mangled both French and English owed more to political backbiting than fact. He may be reassured, however, that he is not alone among leading decision-makers in having his powers of expression so impertinently mocked. Two items reached me this week from an Australian colleague. One concerns his own country, where Larissa Ham harrumphs, at the website of The Age newspaper, about declining standards of spelling and grammar, citing official research suggesting that "almost half of all working Australians don't have the basic literacy and numeracy skills to meet the demands of their everyday work".
Her article was inspired not by illiteracy statistics but by an admission from an Australian senator, Steve Fielding, that a lifelong learning disability explained his perpetual struggle with words. His latest howler was to discuss "physical policy" when he meant fiscal, and to spell fiscal with a k. "I can read, I can write," he said on radio. "But I might not be able to spell the name." We may have to wait some time for similar soul-baring from the winners, if that is the correct term, of a poll conducted by the Plain English Campaign to find the worst abuses of English by public figures in recent times.
An Agence France-Presse report on the survey was the second of the items forwarded by my colleague. In tenth place came Boris Johnson, the colourful mayor of London, for his declaration on television: "I could not fail to disagree with you less." Now I consider this oddly elegant; I would also pick a quarrel with those who voted for the former footballer Eric Cantona's comment, on narrowly escaping jail for assaulting a supporter: "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea." The meaning was always clear to me: the vultures of the press had turned out in force in the hope of feeding on the pickings of his disgrace.
Not many people would question the inclusion of gaffes by two sports commentators: John Motson ("for those of you watching in black and white, Spurs are playing in yellow") and Murray Walker ("the lead car is absolutely unique, except for the one behind it which is identical"). It would take a second column to list the top 10 in full. Suffice to say that three American political figures - Arnold Schwarzenegger, Donald Rumsfeld and Bill Clinton - richly deserved their places, as did the British prime minister Gordon Brown.
But first place went to that implacable enemy of plain English, George W Bush, for this priceless offering: "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we." Now 75 and retired from politics, Jean Chrétien may fairly point out that he did well enough for a man who spoke only Québécois French until he was 30.
It is a shame his own best-remembered verbal contortions - "a proof is a proof. What kind of a proof? It's a proof. A proof is a proof. And when you have a good proof, it's because it's proven." - was not among the poll front-runners. He might then have been forgiven for feeling, if not vindicated, in honourable company. Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org