We Crave Great Words And Get Slick Phrases


February 06, 1992|By CLAIRE L. GAUDIANI

NEW LONDON, CONNECTICUT. — New London, Connecticut -- President Bush's State of the Union address confirmed a trend evident in the last few decades. Public language is in big trouble.

Presidents cannot speak like scrappy municipal pols. National resolve rises on the language of leadership -- on clear, inspired words.

Where has the language gone that transformed the spirit? Do any of us remember public language that transcended troubling times and forged a vision that vaulted into being because people could see it, feel it and work for it?

At a troubling time, President Lincoln urged Americans: ''Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it.'' At another, Winston Churchill proclaimed that, ''If the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say: 'This was their finest hour.' ''

John F. Kennedy's inaugural address and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s ''I Have a Dream'' speech created new visions in striking and straightforward language. Those words helped create a new reality; they still project a clear and powerful message.

Strong public language lives from decade to decade, even century to century. It shapes the future in an active voice. Important ideas are formed in words that people can wrap their minds around, take away with them and act upon.

Unfortunately, the well-meaning efforts that loiter in phrases like ''jobs, jobs, jobs'' and ''the kinder, gentler nation'' miss the boat. Where are the verbs? ''A thousand points of light'' is an image, not an imperative. It summons no action, calls for no transformation.

What is missing in the 1990s is the language of leadership and risk, courage and fierce idealism. In the absence of oratory, we live with image-speak: Who can remember with pride the image of the revolving door or the polluted Boston Harbor? The simplistic, seductive, soon-debunked trick-think pictures glossed in sound bites?

Public language has gone soft. Ideas are diluted until they appeal to almost everybody, almost all the time. The result is preconceived, pretested, pre-approved designer ideas and designer words.

Greatness was never made of fluff like this. Great ideas have never been the consensus agenda. They are the opposite: the clarion call to a vision beyond what a majority could check off on a survey, or would challenge itself to reach for.

Should Winston Churchill have taken a poll to see if 51 percent of the British people would actually agree that '' . . . we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender''? Franklin D. Roosevelt, a poll to see if a majority agreed that ''the only thing we have to fear is fear itself''?

Should Rabbi Hillel have called for an opinion survey on the meaning of self before pronouncing, ''If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am for myself alone, who am I?''

Should Jesus have postponed the Sermon on the Mount until his apostles had first run a poll to test relative market receptivity to each of the Beatitudes?

We have fallen victim to bloodless calculation in words and ideas. No risk, no pain, no repercussions -- but surely less passion, no inspiration, no leaps of faith or energy.

Important ideas, popular or not, must emerge sinewy and real from under the glass carapace of calculated photo ops, advertising images, opinion polls and survey analyses.

Memorable words must tumble out in the time it takes to say them, not in prefabricated sound bites. Why? Fundamentally, because we speak. Perhaps Descartes should have said, ''I think, therefore I speak.'' And (I would continue), therefore I act, and the world changes.

For we human beings, words are our active mode. We do not ''image.'' We think. We speak. We act.

Public language creates common vision for citizens, presents what they are called to do together. When polls and video image-speak and vacant sound bites shape the words that come from leaders, people become cynical. They are left bereft, with neither ringing words nor meaningful images. The spirit sags.

Claire L. Gaudiani is president of Connecticut College.

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