A Crisis of Lexicography

By Duin, Julia | Insight on the News, November 30, 1998 | Go to article overview

A Crisis of Lexicography


Duin, Julia, Insight on the News


The banality of American English may be due to a half-century of peace, according to one language watcher. Social crisis concentrates the mind and elevates the level of discourse.

Immortal phrases used to capture America's indomitable spirit, but today's pop terms are short, pithy and often cynical, reflecting the been-there-done-that weariness of the 1990s.

Gone are inspirational slogans such as Franklin D. Roosevelt's Depression-era "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," and John F. Kennedy's inaugural theme setter "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Today's phrases are techie-terms such as "fast-forward," TV tidbits such as "Let's go to the videotape," and pseudo legalisms such as "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit."

Brian Burrell, a math lecturer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of The Words We Live By, blames banal Americanisms on the fact that the country has not fought a major war in 50 years. "The classical writers used to say too long a period of peace is bad for society," he says. "The world wars were the defining events of the century, and you do have a lot of memorable words coming out of that. People rose to the occasion."

By the 1960s, the buzz words were generated by antiheroes: Vietnam protesters chanted "Hell, no, we won't go," while urban rioters cried "Burn, baby burn." In spite of inspiring nuggets such as Martin Luther King's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, the popular lexicon was enlarged more frequently by cynical phrases such as "Follow the money," from the Watergate book All the President's Men. Ronald Reagan, whose administration dominated the 1980s, was saddled with his "evil empire" quote pertaining to the Soviet Union. His successor, George Bush, went down in history for uttering "Read my lips," a promise not to raise taxes.

The 1990s brought Bill Clinton's "I didn't inhale" vow about smoking pot, followed by his 1993 inaugural address which introduced "I feel your pain," to America. And his policy on homosexuals in the military produced "don't ask, don't tell." The Monica Lewinsky scandal coined innumerable phrases: "vast right-wing conspiracy," "legally accurate" and, perhaps, the mother of all banalities, "it depends on what is is."

Today's discourse is less reliance on classical writers and books and over-reliance on videotape and sound recordings, says Burrell. Although inscriptions on federal buildings draw from the Greek historians Herodotus and Homer, most Americans younger than 50 barely have heard of these writers, much less read them or studied Latin.

"One hundred years ago, there was more of a sense of class divisions in this country," Burrell says. "The educated class read the classics and a lot of wisdom was handed down this way. …

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