Tuesday, April 29, 2008

I Hit 50 on FreeRice and All I Got Was This Lousy Blog Entry

Here's Ted Sorenson, Kennedy speechwriter, quoted in Sunday's New York Times:

"We have a president now who doesn't know the meaning of retreat. In fact he doesn't know the meanings of lots of words."


I laughed, anyway.

But there's something under the skin of this joke that begs investigation. Yes, Bush's vocabulary is probably smaller than mine. It's almost certainly smaller than yours, and may, in fact, be smaller than my seven-year-old cousin's. But so what? What good does knowing a bunch of words do you anyway?

In practical terms, well, squat. My knowledge of the word "redoubtable," for example, has yet to win me fame, fortune, or adoration. Shocking, I know. How about "recondite" or its equally recondite brethren? So far all I've scored is dirty looks. And vocabulary certainly hasn't made me a better communicator; rather, word knowledge has steadily alienated me from friends and family, driving me to do ghastly things like blog and eat string cheese.

So why do we need a president who knows the meaning, not only of retreat, but of retract, retread, and retrench? You could argue, if you were a crack-addled Whorfian, that because language shapes thought, a president who doesn't know the meaning of retreat doesn't have any cognitive construct for backwards locomotion and is thus doomed to keep limping forward, even when he drops his eyeglasses in a ditch and needs to go back and pick them up.

Or you could get reasonable and propose that a marginal vocabulary isn't a cause but a symptom. Bush doesn't know the meaning of the word "retreat" not because of poverty or mental defect or paucity of opportunity, but because he simply hasn't devoted sufficient time to the activities that force you to learn, willy-nilly, new words. That is to say: reading, listening, and talking to people outside of your sphere.

I would be feeling superior right now only I'm sitting alone with my cheese.

1 comment:

bluesky said...
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