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“Political Brain Drain: Why Are Politicians Becoming Dumb and Dumber?”, the lads at PJTV’s Trifecta ask, in a bipartisan look at gaffes including Rep. Hank Johnson’s (D-GA) fears that Guam might capsize, and GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin’s (R-MO) equally craptacular comments on rape, plus the most terrifying MTV concert yet: Barack Obama: Unplugged.
But while politicians wrestle with an “unexpectedly” skyrocketing amount of Florsheim into mouth disease, Elizabeth Bernstein of the Wall Street Journal notes that the rest of America’s vocabulary is shrinking as well:
Big words can be tough on relationships. Messy versus neat, early bird versus night owl—add to this list language junkies versus those with a tweet-ready vocabulary. The problems that big words cause are overlooked. Can people who enjoy using big and obscure words, and those who are annoyed by them, get through to each other?
Technology is largely to blame for big words’ fade out. We are being conditioned to communicate faster and in shorter bursts. There isn’t room for big words in a text or a tweet or even a quickly dashed-off email. We’re communicating across so many different channels that, by sheer necessity, our language is becoming abbreviated (“R u with me?”).
Earlier this month, the College Board, which runs the SAT tests, said among other changes it will drop obscure vocabulary words. Instead of quizzing students on definitions of words such as “prevaricator,” “sagacious,” and “ignominious,” the test will focus more on reading comprehension and understanding words whose meanings shift in context, like “synthesis” and “empirical.”
In grammar school, Jack Bonneman studied a Scripps-Howard spelling bee booklet every night because he liked to learn new words; he went on to become a spelling bee champ. One of his all-time favorite words, which he spelled correctly in fifth grade, is “otorhinolaryngology,” the study and treatment of diseases of the ears, nose and throat.
But big words—the words that others perceive to be obscure or “fancy”—have also caused him trouble. In college, he bought his girlfriend the hair-straightening iron she had been hinting about for Christmas and told her, “I thought it was perfect for you, given your fastidious nature when it comes to your appearance.”
Mr. Bonneman says she threw the gift on the couch, snapped, “Well, aren’t you smart?” and stormed out of the room. Then she broke up with him.
Presumably, Bernstein’s article didn’t come as much of a shock to Clark Whelton, a former speech writer to Ed Koch in the 1980s, who explored “The decline and fall of American English, and stuff,” at City Journal in 2011:
My acquaintance with Vagueness began in the 1980s, that distant decade when Edward I. Koch was mayor of New York and I was writing his speeches. The mayor’s speechwriting staff was small, and I welcomed the chance to hire an intern. Applications arrived from NYU, Columbia, Pace, and the senior colleges of the City University of New York. I interviewed four or five candidates and was happily surprised. The students were articulate and well informed on civic affairs. Their writing samples were excellent. The young woman whom I selected was easy to train and a pleasure to work with. Everything went so well that I hired interns at every opportunity.
Then came 1985.
The first applicant was a young man from NYU. During the interview, he spiked his replies so heavily with “like” that I mentioned his frequent use of the word. He seemed confused by my comment and replied, “Well . . . like . . . yeah.” Now, nobody likes a grammar prig. All’s fair in love and language, and the American lingo is in constant motion. “You should,” for example, has been replaced by “you need to.” “No” has faded into “not really.” “I said” is now “I went.” As for “you’re welcome,” that’s long since become “no problem.” Even nasal passages are affected by fashion. Quack-talking, the rasping tones preferred by many young women today, used to be considered a misfortune.
In 1985, I thought of “like” as a trite survivor of the hippie sixties. By itself, a little slang would not have disqualified the junior from NYU. But I was surprised to hear antique argot from a communications major looking for work in a speechwriting office, where job applicants would normally showcase their language skills. I was even more surprised when the next three candidates also laced their conversation with “like.” Most troubling was a puzzling drop in the quality of their writing samples. It took six tries, but eventually I found a student every bit as good as his predecessors. Then came 1986.
And eventually, 2014 arrives. Or to paraphrase Wolcott Gibbs of the New Yorker, and his 1936 parody of the original Henry Luce-era Time magazine (which itself is victim of a staggering institutional brain drain), backward ran the intelligence until reeled the mind. Where it all ends, knows God.
Related: “Literary City, Bookstore Desert — Surging Rents Force Booksellers From Manhattan.” As with BuzzFeed’s hit piece last week on conservative book publishers, the Times explores the collapse of booksellers in New York, without wrestling with the rise of the Kindle and other eReaders.
Naturally, the Gray Lady being her usual sclerotic old bobo self, another column there, written by a seller of LPs in the age of the iPod proffers a solution of sorts: treat books like classic vinyl:
Perhaps the book publishing industry will follow a similar trajectory. Will there be a resurgence in the demand for physical books? That’s a tough call. One major issue for stores is that many books are only being released digitally; consumers are no longer given the choice. That said, this happened with vinyl and CDs as record labels decided to release some new records exclusively on iTunes. But many independent labels started taking matters into their own hands, buying up old pressing equipment and putting out vinyl records and 45s themselves, which gave the stores more records to stock. This could happen with books as well.
It could happen to the Times as well, perhaps. It is 2014, after all.
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