Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk-Redux

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk-Redux

Article excerpt

IN THE 1970s, I worked as a junior high school counselor in New York City. The students at my school didn't want to be in the building, the teachers felt burnt out, and the administrators seemed bewildered about how to improve the situation.

Fortunately, I came across a book that helped me to understand what was going on, Neil Postman's Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk (Delacorte, 1976), one of the best self-help texts ever written. Postman, a former editor of ETC, was the founder of the media ecology program at NYU. In Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, he presents a philosophy of everyday language and he describes many important varieties of dysfunctional communication. He also shows how using general semantics can improve the way we think and talk.

I recently reread Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk and found I was still moved by the profundity of Postman's thoughts, the elegance of his writing, and the superb examples he used to illustrate his linguistic philosophy. One of those examples, a quote from Goethe, appears on the first page of his book:

   "One should, each day, try to hear a little song, read a good poem,
   see a fine picture, and, if it is possible, speak a few reasonable

Neil Postman, who died in 2003, made a career of speaking and writing reasonable words. This article presents some of those words, in the form of key points from Postman's exceptional book.

Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk--A General Framework

Postman defines stupid talk as talk that has (among other difficulties) a confused direction or inappropriate tone or a vocabulary not well-suited to its context. It is talk that does not or cannot achieve its purposes. "To accuse people of stupid talk is to accuse them of using language ineffectively, of having made harmful but correctable mistakes in performance. It is a serious matter, but usually not dreadful." A road sign that reads No crossing the median divider is an example of stupid talk, since it has the potential to confuse some drivers (the phrase "median divider" is the problem).

Postman asserts that crazy talk is almost always dreadful. "... (it) is talk that may be entirely effective but which has unreasonable or evil or, sometimes, overwhelmingly trivial purposes. It is talk that creates an irrational context for itself or sustains an irrational conception of human interaction. It, too, is correctable but only by improving our values, not our competence." Vandals who paint a "3" into an "8," so a road sign will read Speed limit 85 miles, are practicing crazy talk.

Semantic Environments

In Postman's view, human communications takes place in "semantic environments." Such environments include four elements: people, their purposes, the general rules of discourse by which such purposes are usually achieved, and the particular talk that is actually being used in the situation. Science, religion, politics, commerce, war, sports, lovemaking, and lawmaking, among others, can be considered semantic environments. Let's take a closer look at two: religion and science.

The semantic environment of religion serves, at its best, to minimize fear and isolation and to provide a sense of continuity and oneness. Religious language achieves these purposes by creating metaphors and myths that give concrete form to our most profound fears and exaltations. Religious language offers a set of principles to give ethical purpose and direction to people.

In the semantic environment of science, one finds sentences that are mostly descriptive, predictive, and explanatory. Scientific language centers not on discovering true beliefs, but on detecting those that are false. Scientific language provides a method for working with technical problems and problems related to everyday living.


There can be differences in the purposes of specific individuals in a situation and the purpose of the situation itself. …

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