Perspicacious Ethics: The Media Has A Duty Not To Make Us Dumber

Gore Vidal once said, “As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too.” Certainly the media is accelerating the decadence of society; does it have to intentionally do in the language as well?

On ABC’s This Week, host Christiane Amanpour casually used the word “perspicacious.” Discussing the Constitution,  one of Amanpour’s guests mentioned that Benjamin Franklin wrote that he wouldn’t mind being preserved in a vat of Madeira wine in order to see if the Constitution held up 200 years later. Amanpour responded that Ben was amazingly perspicacious when the Constitution was signed.

Apparently  the word perspicacious stumped the 7th grade drop-outs in the booth, because suddenly a box appeared with the definition and pronunciation of the word under Amanpour. Then, commenting on the incident, the web site Mediaite wrote that Amanpour “might avoid using such fancy language so that viewers in the future don’t mistake her show for a Rosetta Stone class teaching the English language.”

What?? “Fancy language”?  What is this, a network run by the hillbillies from “Deliverance”? (“Yew talk real purdy, boy…) If perspicacious is too “fancy” (Mediaite also says that the word is “SAT worthy,” “elite,’ and “big”), what’s next? Peccadillo? Mendacity? Spurious? Facetious? Cat???

perspicacious is a word any high school educated American should be able to use and understand, if not, in my case, spell. For ABC and Mediaite to side with the illiterate and monosyllabic dolts who think such a word is only for “brainiacs” who are showing off is irresponsible, and raises issues, not for the first time, about the IQ and maturity levels of the people who run the news media.

My son, who has a vocabulary that is not remarkable for his age, or shouldn’t be, was ostracized (oops–is that a fancy word too? Do I need to include a definition in case anyone who works at ABC is perusing the site? Wait! Is perusing too fancy?  I don’t want to obfuscate my meaning—oh no!  I did it again! ) by classmates at his public school because he didn’t talk in four-letter words, clicks and grunts. Behavior like ABC’s endorses their conduct and attitudes, rather than the civilized one, which is if you don’t know what a word means, look it up!  Then use it.

Being erudite and articulate should not be a mark of “elitism,” but of mastering the art of expressing thought. The lazy, classist, self-destructive attitude that precise language—and perspicacious is a great example of that—is something that should be avoided, ridiculed and shunned is an impediment to discourse and complex thought. For ABC and media commentators to be embracing such an attitude is intolerable.

So keep it up, Christine. Don’t dumb down your conversation for the clods in the studio. Keep using words like condign and excogitation, George Will. We learn how to express ourselves better by learning and using new words, and discouraging useful words because listeners are too lazy and ill-read to understand them guarantees the decline of expression, then thought, then society.

20 thoughts on “Perspicacious Ethics: The Media Has A Duty Not To Make Us Dumber

  1. This sort of thing makes me appreciate my private school education. My AP English teacher had one student every week come up with a list of vocabulary words, which the rest of the class would then be quizzed on. We loved it and collectively spent days pouring over dictionaries looking for fancy words that would most assuredly trump our classmates. I won that unofficial contest when I stumbled upon floccinaucinihilipilification.

    My parents were fond of word play when I was growing up, and combined with my schooling, this idea that some words are just too darn fancy confuses me. It’s distressing that ABC really felt the need to define it.

    • I liked “pulchritudinous.” Found that in the dictionary. I not really fond of that form, but “pulchritude” is a good word to talk about that flutter in my heart when I see Kristen Bell while still sounding like a scientist.

      • The same teacher was also really keen that we all know the definition of “supercilious” and be able to use it effectively. He really loved that word.

    • Heh, if someone said that, I’m pretty sure at least half the other commentators would be asking for a definition themselves.

  2. This ams a good write box, Jack. It ams the most goodest write box I used eyes with in my picture machine this not day.

    I now need food to enter my inside by making the food more little using my white mouth parts.

  3. The thing is (speaking from personal experience as a person who hated high school English), you don’t even have to be a language aficionado to be able to at least understand a large swath of English vocabulary; I didn’t learn any “fancy” words by reading from a dictionary, but by simply understanding the context in whatever piece of writing I happened to come across them in. If someone who can be as stupid as me can do it, I’m pretty sure most of the American populace can do it too. Besides, I’m pretty sure (or at least hope) that most people interested in something like “This Week” wouldn’t be too bothered by “perspicacious”.

    Combined with the Atlanta testing debacle, this is just showing what we’ve known for a while; educational reformers have some big mountains to scale.

    • You’ve got it right there, Julian. Anyone with a reasonable vocabulary and the power of logical thinking to match ought to be able to figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word. From vocabulary, you acquire a reservoir of Latin and German root words. From intelligence, you place it in the context of the conversation. Simple armchair detective work. The dictionary is the weapon of last resort only. However, if one were that perspicacious to begin with, would he have been wasting his time watching that show?

  4. Even worse, does anyone remember when knowing the difference between “perspicacious” (keenly discerning) and “perspicuous” (clear and plain to the understanding”) was a sign of literacy? I guess if you don’t know what either word means, the difference between them doesn’t matter much. Quick — what’s the difference between “clough” and “chough”? (And for extra credit, how is each pronounced?)

  5. Strangely, I look at what ABC did as a positive thing: they educated the public on the meaning of a word that someone there (probably correctly) decided was unknown to a large number of viewers. What they did was perfectly in line with the “look it up” sentiment in that they did, in fact, look it up for the viewers.

    Mediaite gets it wrong, of course, for exactly the reasons you describe.

    Also, if she had used the word incorrectly, this would be a VERY different sort of story!

    …and why WOULDN’T we say that the inventor of bifocals was perspicacious?


    • If “The Week’ were “Sesame Street”, I’d agree with you. What that box says to me is:
      1. “We think our viewers are idiots.”
      2. “Our Christiane is so much more erudite than her viewers that we periodically have to translate for her.”
      3. “Our staff had to look up this fancy-schmancy word, so you don’t know what it means.” and…
      4. “It’s OK not to have the vocabulary of an educated 8th grader, and anyone who uses a word that wouldn’t be at home in “Dick, Jane and Sally” is a snob and should be admonished.”.

      It isn’t OK, and “This Week’ is about current events,

  6. “I don’t want to go on a rant, here, but America’s foreign policy makes about as much sense as Beowulf having sex with Robert Fulton at the first battle of Antietam. I mean when a neo-conservative defenestrates it’s like Raskolnikov filibuster deoxymonohydroxinate.”

    “What the hell does ‘rant’ mean?”

      • It’s a quote from a television show.

        The first part is said by a parody of Dennis Miller (Miller was accused of being a bit too erudite on his talk show). The second is the idiot viewer talking to himself.

        I never watched Dennis Miller’s show, but I enjoyed him on MNF. Noone I was with got it, but when he referred to 350lb DT Tony “Goose” Siragousa diving at the QB as “The Spruce Goose,” I was highly entertained.

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