There’s a popular meme bouncing around social media with a picture of John Wayne holding a phone and asking the question, “Now just why in the hell do I have to press ‘1’ for English?” It’s popular with people whose politics lean far to the right and who continually denounce the presence of Spanish speaking immigrants in the U.S. The irony is that this meme is often posted by people who use terrible grammar, are unfamiliar with the concept of punctuation, phonetically spell words the way they speak (e.g. “ours” becomes “ares”), and offer a spittle of words lacking the cohesion of what one could properly call a sentence. I often want to ask these very people, “Just what button do the rest of us have to push to get you to speak English?!”
While it sounds snobbish to say Americans could elect better Presidents if they only had a stronger vocabulary, sadly, it’s proving to be the case.
For the past sixteen years, America’s Presidential elections have come down between two groups of people; not Democrats and Republicans, but, rather, Those who speak and write English with great aptitude and Those who don’t. The divide between these two groups is as wide as the Grand Canyon, and they eye each other warily across the chasm, each wondering how those on the other side went so wrong. While it sounds snobbish to say Americans could elect better Presidents if they only had a stronger vocabulary, sadly, it’s proving to be the case.
In 2000, and again in 2004, the winner of the Presidential election was decided by people who don’t know what a malapropism is. During George W. Bush’s campaign and throughout his eight-year reign, he made remarks like, “We’ll let our friends be the peacekeepers and the great country called America will be the pacemakers.” Bush’s daily mangling of the English language became so frequent that a cottage industry of books and websites were built off what came to be called “Bushisms.”
However, long before Bush uttered sentences like, “We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile,” English playwright Richard Sheridan created the character Mrs. Malaprop for his stageplay, The Rivals. Mrs. Malaprop is an eccentric aunt famous for her inability to find the exact word. In the play, she praises one character by being “… the very pineapple of politeness” and criticized another with the remark “she’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.” Debuting in London in 1775, the play’s Mrs. Malaprop was so readily embraced for her penchant to never say exactly what she meant, that her name became a noun for such incorrect word usage. Sheridan must have foreseen the American political process when he created Mrs. Malaprop, and especially when he wrote the line “she might reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying.”
While it became quite clear Bush supporters either didn’t mind his abuse of language, or they just didn’t recognize it themselves, the Republicans raised the ante and gave us Sarah Palin, the best thing to happen to malapropisms since the heady days of Yogi Berra. Palin’s grasp of English made Bush look like a Jane Austen. Listening to her speak is like reading A Clockwork Orange: You have no idea what she is saying, but part of the fun is deciphering it. So prolific is Palin with the malaprop that, like Bush, her name has been coined into a phrase, Palinisms. Of her many delicious creations, people tend to like “refudiate” the most, and I think it’s because it combines “refute” and “repudiate.” While there is no doubt Palin probably thinks a portmanteau (the combining of words) is a place where cruise ships make stops in the Caribbean, one might pause to envy her thrifty verbiage. But then she had to go and spoil it by comparing herself to Shakespeare with his creation of words.
Ever the rule breaker, Trump does not follow the Republican tradition of unintentionally creating new words.
The grammar world returned to its natural axis with the ever-articulate Barack Obama and his reelection in 2012, as well as with his opponent, the eloquent Mitt Romney. Of course, all good things must come to an end, and eight years of structured sentences and a sophisticated lexicon has come to a screeching halt. And I mean that literally, since it is our screeching President-elect Donald Trump who is bringing excellent grammar to its end.
Ever the rule breaker, Trump does not follow the Republican tradition of unintentionally creating new words. In fact, he doesn’t even use that many words at all. He even gives you the feeling that he has a very finite number of words in his vocabulary, and he will not dishonor them by crowding them with new words. After all, it was he who told us, “I know words. I have the best words.” Nonetheless, his speeches remind one of those high school days when a teacher assigned a 1,000 word essay, and some students padded their papers with sentences like, “The Civil War was a really, really, really bad war.”
Trump speaks in so many run-on sentences that, in one public speech, he created a sentence that used 285 words before finding a period. For the sake of edification, the average sentence has 15 to 20 words, and most people find it difficult to follow any sentence longer than 29 words.
Even worse, Trump also has a gift for using very non-specific words to create sentences that are as hyperbolic as they are pointless. Beyond eliciting knee-jerk laughter, his debate utterance, “No one has more respect for women than I do,” is not only a meaningless sentence with no quantifiable measure, but it employs a word that was so overlooked in the 2016 election, its name may as well have been named Jan Brady: Irony.
Does Trump’s electorate have any idea what irony means, because one couldn’t have found a greater exercise in irony than the strange union of Trump and his true believers. The very people who denounced Michelle Obama for wearing sleeveless dresses, embraced the now-famous nude model, Melania Trump, as an elegant First Lady. The same blue collar people who rejected Hillary Clinton as being a part of “the establishment” embraced the New York business world millionaire son of a New York business world millionaire. The business community, who wanted to “Make America Great Again,” was unperturbed by the fact Trump couldn’t even make Atlantic City great again.
But wait, there’s more. The “family values” people who dismissed the distinguished Obama family, celebrated Trump’s relationship with his children from three marriages, and turned a blind eye to a scabrous remark about his daughter’s attractiveness, and more misogynistic remarks than a roomful of country club douchebags could produce in their cumulative lifetimes. Even worse, the evangelicals who posited that the insurance-providing Obama is the anti-Christ, trumpeted Trump, whose harsh proposals for immigrants and Muslims would make even Mussolini cast a judgmental eye.
The 2016 election was a metaphorical boxing match, though not between candidates, but between the words irony and hypocrisy. One can hear the announcer calling the uneven match: “Hypocrisy came out at the first bell raring to go, pummeling Irony with a rat-a-tat-tat from both fists, never pausing to even breathe. Irony has been on the ropes the entire time. Hypocrisy dances around him gleefully, throwing in jabs and upper cuts. Irony is stupefied by the no-holds barred style of Hypocrisy here in the Trump Arena. The crowd boos Irony and shouts at him, ‘Go back to the fancy Ivy League school from which you came!’”
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. This particular crowd would more realistically have cried out, “Go back to the fancy Ivy League school you came from,” but as Mrs. Malaprop, or her modern day counterpart, Sarah Palin, might admonish us, one doesn’t end a sentence with a proposition.