Who will speak up for language?

Remedial English for public officials

3 minute read
'My fellow jelly doughnuts....'
'My fellow jelly doughnuts....'
"We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile,'' then-presidential candidate George W. Bush declared while campaigning in Iowa in 2000. (Don't take my word for it. Click here.)

"This is unparalyzed in the state's history," Texas House Speaker Gib Lewis recently remarked— yes, the same Gib Lewis who also once explained, "There's a lot of uncertainty that's not clear in my mind."

Caroline Kennedy recently managed to say, "You know" more than 200 times in an interview with the New York Times. For that matter, her father, JFK, seemed unaware that he was describing himself as a jelly doughnut when he proudly declared, "Ich bin ein Berliner" in West Berlin in 1963.

A recent study provided the alarming news that 75 percent of California community college students need remedial English courses. What the percentage is for public figures we can only guess at.

And not just in America, either. A reporter from the Daily Express in London found that the phrase "The fact of the matter is" was uttered no fewer than 740 times on a popular BBC radio program in the four months preceding a general election.

Silent Cal's quip

The reporter concluded that politicians use such clichés to avoid answering the question altogether, or to play for time while recalling the party line. But I would suggest another reason: The chief characteristic of politicianspeak is self-importance.

The former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once decided not to speak because he had nothing sufficiently important to say. At a White House dinner in the '20s, President Calvin ("Silent Cal") Coolidge was approached by a woman who told him, "I made a bet with a friend that I could get you to say more than two words"; Coolidge supposedly replied, "You lose."

Such diffidence is the exception in a mass media world where most politicians love the sound of their own voices. If you're hoping to hear pithy quips along the lines of Truman's "The buck stops here" or FDR's "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"— well, as Coolidge would put it, you lose.

London air raids

The need for more picturesque language— or even clarity— on the part of public officials is no laughing matter. Citizens inured to dull rhetoric stop paying attention. During the first air raids on London during World War II, it was found that large numbers of people didn't know which siren meant the Alert, and which the All Clear— presumably because they'd already stopped listening. Boring speechifying also softens up citizens for fiery demagoguery, like that of Hitler, Mussolini or the Tea Party.

What's more, non-words have a way of becoming legitimate words when politicians use them. Warren Harding was ridiculed in 1920 when he campaigned for president by promising Americans a "return to normalcy." Nowadays, normalcy is used so widely that it even appears in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Who killed normality? I blame Warren Harding.

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