Why our word diet is red meat,

and most of it ground chuck.

When we complain about the limitations of hamburgers, or vocabularies (even in jest), I grow concerned. Not because I don’t have a sense of humor, but because we cross a fine line joking about intelligence. I love a good Texas Aggie joke (even though they moved to the Southeast Conference), Polish jokes, not so much. Blonde jokes? It depends on the joke, and the blonde. Trump is fair game. My sister will skewer you.

I love hamburgers. I love hamburgers with lettuce, tomatos and mayo, with mushrooms and swiss, buried under bacon, chili and cheese. I like them from MacDonalds and I like them from Wendy’s. I like them gourmet with artichokes and brie. I like them between a sliced donut, with avocado, with green eggs and ham.

Steak can only be enjoyed rare or medium rare with a dab of butter, and, maybe, sauce on the side. We should think carefully lest we discriminate unintentionally.

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Why are our word salads increasingly like hamburger? (Images courtesy of unsplash and Footage Firm, Inc.

Observations and cause

In college, I relished my vocabulary. I slathered it onto my conversation like marmalade onto scones. My professors (most of them) embraced my eloquence and rewarded me with a summa cum laude designation. My friends, not so much. They found me pretentious, overly loquacious and too cavalier with language. One woman I dated summarized more succinctly, “You’re so smart I don’t understand a word you said.” I took it as a compliment.

Then I taught college writing. At that time one of the many writing myths perpetuated by my peers and mentors was, “never use the same word twice.” I suppose they never read Hemingway. As a consequence students plumbed their thesaurusus[1] for the most intellectual sounding (aka longest) word they could find. The results were hilarious and sad and I told them to throw the thesaurus away. “The best way to sound smart,” I told them, “is to be smart, and that starts with using words you know.”

I realized that communication requires speaking to or writing for your audience. I find it ironic that science claims we use only ten percent of our brains,[2] but we express disdain to hear we use only ten percent of our vocabulary. The English vocabulary exploded with the rise of technology and specialized careers. So much so that our education system punts the liberal arts where we learn the language of the Bard, not to mention other poets who expand the language.

I might also point out that by the time I finished high school, one of my rewards was to hate Shakespeare. It wasn’t Shakespeare’s fault, the education system forced us to learn Elizabethan prose but never address the issues or sexual dynamics of Elizabethan drama. We were certainly never encouraged to map Shakespeare’s dramas onto our lives and concerns in the twentieth century. (Yes, I’m that old.)

The art of communication isn’t an act of dumbing down America. We want to use a vocabulary common to all if we wish to be understood clearly. The dumbing down occurs when we focus on standardized testing in school, on SAT vocabularies that stress short-term memory instead of incorporating words of value into our own, on a media that reduces drama to one-hour episodes slashed to 42 minutes and broken into mini-episodes sandwiched between commercials that are either more entertaining or mind-numbingly mundane. The evening of drama and low comedy builds to a news hour in which information is sandwiched between more entertainment in the form of car wrecks and murders, five minutes of weather, five minutes of sports and then, when we finally encounter vital information it comes with no context, little connection to other important events and only the most shallow analysis.

For real information we turn the cable and network news which reduce important stories to sound bytes presented with questions no more difficult than swatting a badminton birdie and counterpoint by spin control specialists. Or the Internet where information is buried under layer after later of noise, misinformation and Facebook posts from people who know in their hearts they’re better Christians than us.

All of this reinforced by a direct cultural assault on intelligent thought by extremenists, one side claiming we’ve reduced our collective IOs to somewhere around 62, and the other, led by our President, claiming: “Anyone who likes Shakespeare, Cézanne and Bach hates you.”

I do believe in honest plain communication. I believe, when writing to an audience who suspects I’m a liberal intellectual, that speaking plainly and clearly isn’t writing down to the ignorant. I believe, and have seen in many examples, that phrases constructed with words not commonly used are often constructed to confuse and obscure. I believe that families who work hard waitressing, repairing cars, paving highways don’t necessarily want an intellectual challenge after a twelve hour shift for half the pay they earned three decades ago.

It’s easy to look at our privilege and think of others, “why can’t they take advantage of my privilege?” It’s the same kind of thinking that blames the poor for their poverty.

[1]There is no plural version of thesaurus that doesn’t sound wrong.

[2]Which is probably not true. Neuroscientists now recognize we may use ten percent for conscious activity, but the brain evolved to regulate our bodies. Much of it is required for unconscious activity that keeps us alive and functioning.

Wry noir writer Phillip T. Stephens is the author of Cigerets, Guns & Beer, Raising Hell and Seeing Jesus. Follow him @stephens_pt.

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Living metaphor. Follow me @stephens_pt.

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