Language, Thinking and the Oratorical Donald

Sir Winston Trump

Can we at least all agree on this: when it comes to verbal expression, Donald Trump is no Winston Churchill?

Yeah? But is he as bad as the critics claim?

Sarah Sloat thinks not. On the website Inverse, she argues that rather than being an indication of stupidity, Donald’s Trump limited vocabulary “exemplifies sly intelligence.”

She takes issue with Philip Roth’s contention in the 30 January issue of the New Yorker that Trump is essentially a fucking imbecile, both intellectually and morally.[1]

Take it away Mr. Roth:

I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.”

Because Trump has “a small vocabulary size,” Sloat argues, doesn’t mean “that the President is dumb.” I more or less agree with her on this point. A limited vocabulary doesn’t necessarily mean that a person can’t solve intricate quadratic equations or intelligently assess a potential business rival’s weaknesses. What I do disagree with, however, is that Trump’s use of an impoverished vocabulary is “the hallmark of a person sly enough to hook his listeners and persuade them using only a few words.” In other words, I don’t think Trump’s use of a small number of words in his speeches is a conscious action aimed at endearing him to downhome folk. I think he talks that way all the time.

For example, here he is discussing history with an interviewer on satellite radio:

They said my campaign is most like, my campaign and win was most like Andrew Jackson with his campaign. And I said, “When was Andrew Jackson?” It was 1828. That’s a long time ago. That’s Andrew Jackson. And he had a very, very mean and nasty campaign. Because they said this was the meanest and the nastiest. And unfortunately it continues.  His wife died. They destroyed his wife and she died. And, you know, he was a swashbuckler. But when his wife died, you know, he visited her grave every day. I visited her grave actually, because I was in Tennessee. And it was amazing. The people of Tennessee are amazing people. Well, they love Andrew Jackson. They love Andrew Jackson in Tennessee. I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart, and he was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, you think about it, why?

Trump isn’t shy about expressing his dislike of reading, which shows not only in the content of what he says but also in its expression.   The mind that produced the above is a mind not shaped by reading, a mind lacking the syntactical structures necessary for clear thinking, a mind with a threadbare vocabulary that limits the ability to detect and therefore articulate nuance.

It’s almost as if he’s invented his own brand of sub-literate Newspeak. Everything is either “bad” or “evil” or “great” and” tremendous.” Hence, the flip-flops. He doesn’t merely moderate his stances but completely reverses them. He rushes to judgement, proclaims something “tremendous” or “bad” but then after a discussion with a cabinet member pulls a 180.

Take his reversal on NATO, for example: “The secretary general and I had a productive discussion about what more NATO can do in the fight against terrorism. I complained about that a long time ago, and they made a change, and now they do fight terrorism. I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.”

The implication is that NATO has just recently changed their posture towards terrorism because of Trump’s complaints, and now that NATO has changed, it’s no longer obsolete. This may be a clever strategy for hoodwinking his ardent followers but probably not all that an effective approach when it comes to our allies.

At any rate, what I most disagree with is Sloat’s conflating intelligence with ignorance. She writes, “Roth equates Trump’s small vocabulary with ignorance, [my emphasis] which is in line with the old-school view of verbal fluency.” But ignorance and intelligence are two very different matters. Unlike me, I suspect that Stephen Hawkins is ignorant of the various interpretations of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive floating around the Internet; however, I dare say that he would beat me on an IQ test.

At any rate, Roth’s charge of Trump’s ignorance “of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art” seems to me indisputable. Trump’s vocabulary is beside the point here. The idea of Andrew Jackson’s preventing the Civil War is about as credible as Noah’s releasing two penguins on Mount Ararat. It’s grossly ignorant and would be just as ignorant if Churchill had expressed it in all of his sonorous eloquence.

Skillful orators alter their vocabularies depending on their audiences. Trump uses the same impoverished vocabulary whether he’s making a speech to a stadium of his supporters, answering policy questions from an interviewer, or hitting on a model.

He’s tripleplusinarticulate.

[1] Quoting Sloat quoting researchers, “A voluminous taboo lexicon may better be considered an indicator of healthy verbal abilities rather than a cover for their deficiencies.”  Oh fuck yeah!


Wordly Wise Succumbs to Political Correctness

Note James Dickey’s phone number on the cover; he’d let students call him and interview him for research papers on Deliverance.

Years ago, in a less sensitive century, I taught a course in Remedial English Developmental English at a community college. Of all the various workbooks we tried during my stint there, my favorite was Practically Painless English by Sally Foster Wallace, who happens to be the mother of David Foster Wallace. David would have been a late teen when I was teaching from his mom’s workbook, and I was only in my late twenties myself.

Alas, a couple of years ago, I gave my only copy to DFW aficionado and kickass essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan. As of this morning, surviving copies are going for $138 a pop on Amazon.

However, thanks of an internet recovery site, I was able to cop these exemplary snippets from Sally Wallace’s book:

Orlanda McGurk and Chively Sneed drink kerosene.
I went to the grocery store. I bought some soap. I bought some dynamite.
His eyes sparkled as he sprinkled poison on the cupcakes.
The bright pink sports car crashed on the icy winding road.
Until the killer confesses, we are all under suspicion.
The murderer himself was in the funeral procession.

Delightful but dangerous in this trigger-unhappy era. It’s possible one of your students’ mothers died when her pink Porsche skidded off an icy, winding road and smacked into an aspen. Although unlikely, Mrs. Wallace’s macabre example could cause legitimate heartache. Believe me, it happens. I’ve hurt people alluding to a much more unlikely death scenario.

So it’s not surprising that editors of long running series like Wordly Wise occasionally revise sentences to better reflect contemporary sensibilities. In fact, several new editions have come out in the 32 years I’ve been teaching Wordly Wise; however, because I’m lazy, I still use the very same workbooks issued to me in 1985. (see illustration above) Just because the word buxom[1] has been removed from Book 7, doesn’t make it worth the trouble of re-doing the exercises of the latest iteration to accommodate such a minor change.[2]

These changes usually take place in Section B, where students have to select sentences in which italicized words have been used incorrectly (see footnote 1 below).

Many of the emendations reflect skittishness about religious references.

Exercise A

a heathen tribe

(a) living in the jungle (b) living on islands (c) converted to Christianity (d) without Biblical religious belief

Exercise B

16 (a) Any person not a Christian, a Jew, or a Moslem was considered a heathen. (b) Missionaries went abroad in great numbers to convert the heathen to Christianity. (c) The people in the jungle are best left alone to worship their heathen gods. (d) The natives continued to heathen their own gods despite the efforts of the missionaries.

So when students hear Bob Marley sing “Heathen back against the wall,” they won’t have a clue.

Examples of violence are also targets for replacement.

From the same world list, one example of recoil has been softened. The 1983 edition includes the sentence, “He recoiled in horror when his gaze fell on the murdered man,” which in the 1998 version reads, “He recoiled in disgust when he saw the slugs in his driveway.”

My favorite changes occur in Book 6, Word List 6 where the sentence “Following their defeat in battle, the tribesmen were ruthlessly massacred” has been changed to “Some people see meat-eating as the massacre of animals.” Also, the strange “The animals were driven into the ravine and massacred by men with high-powered rifles” has given way to the metaphoric “The visitors massacred the home team; the score was 57 – 0.[3]

Apparently, George Custer remains fair game. The 1983 sentence “The massacre of General Custer’s men at Little Big Horn occurred in 1876″ survives in the 1998 edition.

Sex is not so much a problem because the editors ignore any sexual connotations a word may have. For example, orgy is defined as “wild, abandoned merrymaking.”

Hi, Emerson how was school today?

It was a blast, mom. The pep rally turned into an orgy!”

I’ll leave you with one last example, another sentence that has withstood the [tautology alert] censorious eye of the Wordly Wise censor:

“He led a chaste and ordered life with his uncles.”


[1] It’s defined as “plump.” See if you can guess which usage is incorrect: A. She was a healthy, buxom woman in the prime of life or B. She offered to buxom the pillow to make it more comfortable.

[2] Our department eschews teacher manuals.

[3] What offends me more than religious references or allusions to violence is the examples’ unnecessary use of passive voice and their lack of specificity. How about “A band of hunchbacked Lithuanian dwarves drove the bison into the ravine where their Russian overlords massacred them with AK 47s” or “The visitors massacred the home team 57-0?

That Time I Got Called into the Principal’s Office for Teaching Filth


Okay, the Prince of Lies wings his way upward and on a cliff encounters a woman naked and beautiful from the genitals up, but horror-show-hideous below, where “[v]oluminous and vast,” a hydra-like reptilian whiplash “of scaly folds” slithers.

Satan can hear the muffled howling of dogs, the frenzied yelps coming from . . . from within her . . . “about her middle round.” These dogs “kennel” in her womb, exit and reenter periodically, and with “their wide Cerberian mouths full loud,” let out “a hideous peal.”


Next to her sits a blob-like creature not “distinguishable in member, joint, or limb.” On what might be considered his head, he wears a “kingly crown.”

[What the Hell?]

Well, boys and girls, sin is ugly. Check out Hieronymus Bosch or Breughel the Elder.


This unholy trinity described above consists of Satan, Sin, and Death. You see, one day when he was strolling the gold-paved streets of Heaven, Lucifer had this chick split open his head and emerge, Athena-like, fully armed.  A rebellious thought had roiled his erstwhile Seraphic mind and presto Trouble!

So Beautiful was this feminine doppelganger of a daughter, he had sex with her, impregnated her, right up there in Heaven.

Her name is Sin.

[Tsk Tsk]

After the war and the expulsion of the rebel angels and their general Satan, Sin gives birth to a blob-like boy who rips open her womb and transforms her limbs into snakes. This offspring, son of Satan, immediately rapes her and impregnates her with the above-mentioned hellhounds.

His name is Death.

Satan + Sin = Death.. . .

* * *

One cloudy day in the early 90’s, I receive an email from our new principal. He’d like to see me in his office, which, because of some construction, is a trailer. I don’t put this encounter off. I stroll over as soon as I can.

Once inside, I sit down on the proffered sofa.

“Well, Wesley. I’ve had a mother call and complain about one of your sophomore English classes.”

“Really? What’s the beef?”

“She says you’re teaching obscenity. By the way, what are you teaching?”

“’The justification of the ways of God to men.’”


Paradise Lost.”

He smiles, nods. “Okay, thanks.  I’ll explain it to her”

* * *

Believe it or not, sophomores dig Paradise Lost if you set it up right and read a fluidly truncated version. You teach it like it’s sci-fi. After all, Hell in Paradise Lost is a far distant planet; Satan flies through outer space to find Earth.

You got monsters, battles, video-game like scenery.

Add to that full frontal nudity and the gorgeous music of the poetry.



Eve separate he spies,

Veiled in a Cloud of Fragrance, where she stood

Half spied, so thick the Roses bushing round

About her glowed, oft stooping to support

Each Flower of slender stalk, whose head though gay

Carnation, Purple, Azure, or specked with Gold,

Hung drooping unsustained, them she upstands

Gently with Myrtle band, mindless the while,

Her self, though fairest unsupported Flower,

From her best prop so far and storm so nigh.


[I’ve modernized the spelling].



A Guided Tour of Last Night’s Insomnia

Insomnia by ~diablozz

Insomnia by ~diablozz

On the Sunday night before the Monday morning of my return, given that I had missed seven consecutive days of school, I could have predicted that when I lay me down to sleep in my half-empty bed, I would suffer a potent spell of insomnia.

My wife and I had been on a medical junket to Houston, Texas, where she received a PET scan, an MRI, an extra-scheduled brain MRI, and subsequent “lumbar puncture” (née spinal tap). Add to that existential dread the students’ missed work, the now screwed-up syllabi, my dislike of grog-producing sleep aids, and insomnia was, as Richard Nixon once said, a foregone conclusion.

When that switch goes off in my head and those darkened corridors become suddenly illuminated and I’m instantaneously wide, wide awake, I don my imaginary Sigmund Freud mask with its glasses, white beard, and cigar. A re-visitation and evaluation of recent dreams is in order.

Dream 1: During my absence the government has constructed a road that runs through the marsh and river that are in essence my back yard. So long serenity; hail ceaseless traffic. [Interpretation: cancer invasion].


Dream 2: I’m at a family reunion where my mother and father are among the quick, and some female baby relative cousin is screaming her head off — no one can quiet her — so I pick her up to see what I can do and discover that feces is flowing lava-like from her dripping diaper onto a Persian rug, so I hand her off to my mother and grab rags and paper towels and try to sop up the diarrheic outpouring. [Interpretation: cancer has shitted on our lives].

Dream 3: I’m in some exotic location in the South Seas where a swimming pool overlooks the most pacific of Pacific seascapes. I’m having a conversation with two of my former students, Allen and Willy Hutcheson, and Allen is telling me about his life when I detect some commotion in the pool. I look down and see a dead Macaw lying at the bottom, which I know will upset Willy because he is an ornithologist, but then there’s this terrible thrashing, and low and behold, an exotically neon-hued very alive crocodile has replaced the dead parrot. [Interpretation: sigh].


Okay, perhaps a different mental activity might be in order.

This is probably stupid, but when I have these spates of insomnia, I create overly metric nonsense verse, stupid adult versions of nursery rhymes, and the following is what I came up with last night, and I share it, not because it is any good at all, or even particularly clever, but because of where it leads us next.

Dr. John and I

shared a piece of apple pie

baked by that angel grandma

Chloe of Senegal

who is as scrawny

as the doctor is brawny,

though if I weren’t

bound by rhyme

I might opine

that big-bellied would be better

to describe a waistline so unfettered.

The Great Dr. John, aka Mac Rebennack

The Great Dr. John, aka Mac Rebennack

This exercise leads me to think about English, that hybrid language with its blunt Anglo-Saxon roots, supple Norse syntax, and treasure trove of French words. We’re talking here the assimilation, not of immigrants, but of invaders, yet Anglo-Saxon girls married Vikings, their offspring married Normans, who ate poultry instead of chicken, the combination of the three languages creating such a wealth of ways to express ourselves.

Scrawny, brawny – a potent spell of insomnia . . .

[scrawny – probably from Old Norse skrælna to shrival]

[brawny – from Old French braon fleshy or muscular part, buttock]

[potent – from Latin potentem powerful]

[spell – from Old English gespelia – a substitute, shift work, continuous stretch]

[spell – from Proto German spellam “report, tale, fable. ” From c. 1200 as “an utterance, something said, a statement, remark”; meaning “set of words with supposed magical or occult powers, incantation, charm, first recorded 1570s; hence any means or cause of enchantment.” (Oxford Dictionary of Folklore via Online Etymology Dictionary)

I think of the ad in Back of the Boy’s Life magazines I read when I was a Cub Scout, the ad with the 98 pound weakling sharing a beach blanket his a buxom companion, their outing spoiled by having sand kicked in their faces.

“Hey, you pathetic emaciated excuse for a hominid,” ejaculates the muscular ruffian.

“Hey, you scrawny bitch,” spews the rock-hard bully.


And these thoughts of assimilation lead me to think of how many Muslims I saw in Houston, all the women in hijabs, both at the Galleria Mall and at MD Anderson, one woman sitting in the hospital in a black niqab but also wearing a mask beneath the veil to ward off infection, and then there was the Iraqi veteran who had worked as a translator for the US Army and who was now working as a concierge at the Wyndam Suites, and also we met with a former student and his Pakistani wife, their marriage being the first non-arranged union in the history of her family, and she told Judy and me that even as a coed at the University of Georgia her curfew at her home in the summertime was seven p.m. and, oh boy, a yawn, a good sign, my body hinting to just breathe, and maybe the mind will empty if I pay attention to inhalation and exhalation, if I just let go and allow the swirls of grey behind my eyelids to take whatever shape whatever.

Uses and Abuses of Figurative Language, Donald Trump Edition

from left to right Chris Matthews, Hillary Clinton, Edward Snowden, Vladimir Putin, Julian Assange, Donald Trump. Anderson Cooper

from left to right Chris Matthews, Hillary Clinton, Edward Snowden, Vladimir Putin, Julian Assange, Donald Trump. Anderson Cooper


“Figures of speech are spices that add zest to language,” a tired textbook author might write.

But even though the previous sentence lazily relies on a stale metaphor, it’s still more pleasurable to read than “Figures of speech are words and phrases used in other than their literal sense, or in other than their ordinary locutions, in order to suggest a picture or image or for other special effect.’”[1]

Here’s the great American poet Richard Wilbur on the subject:


Praise in Summer

by Richard Wilbur

Obscurely yet most surely called to praise,

As summer sometimes calls us all, I said

The hills are heavens full of branching ways

Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;

I said the trees are mines in air, I said

See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!

And then I wonder why this mad instead

Perverts our praise to uncreation, why

Such savor’s in this wrenching things awry.

Does sense so stale that it must needs derange

The world to know it? To a praiseful eye

Should it not be enough of fresh and strange

That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,

And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?

In the octave of this sonnet, Wilbur, via metaphors, reverses the natural order, turning “hills” into “sky” and “moles” into “birds” that fly/burrow over the bones beneath them. He then reverses the mirror and transforms a “tree” into a “mine” and “sparrows” into “moles.”

In the sestet, he laments that even the most miraculous aspects of nature eventually bore us, so we end up through figurative language “perverting” what should by themselves fascinate us in their natural state — things of wonder like green trees, moles, and sparrows. Oddly enough, after questioning the need for figurative language, Wilbur paradoxically ends the poem with a metaphor as “sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day” — though at least the metaphor reflects the world in its correct orientation with the sky above and the ground below.

Because, as Wilbur notes, “figures of speech “wrench things awry,” their use can lead to misunderstanding. For example, if you don’t read much poetry, you might find “Praise for Summer” baffling, if not incomprehensible.

Problems can also arise when the less perceptive among us take figurative language literally, as Donald Trump claimed last week in his controversy du semaine.

In case you’re just emerging from solitary confinement, Trump made a literal accusation about the origins of ISIS and then tried to claim, post shitstorm, that he didn’t mean what he had said literally. He then cast the folks at CNN as dullards incapable of appreciating his use of irony.

Allow me to render his accusation in verse as I might if I were quizzing my high school students.

Barack and Hillary founded ISIS,

So they are to blame for our current crisis.

Identify the figure of speech found in the couplet:

A.understatement   B. verbal irony (sarcasm)   C. synecdoche   D. hyperbole

The correct answer is D. Trump wasn’t employing sarcasm; he didn’t mean to convey that Obama and Hillary didn’t create ISIS by stating the opposite. If he meant the accusation figuratively (which I doubt), he was waxing hyperbolic – exaggerating – suggesting that Obama and Clinton’s mismanagement of foreign affairs led to the rise of the so-called Islamic State, thus making them de facto founders of ISIS. That he mocks others for not getting his sarcasm when he isn’t being sarcastic is worthy of sarcasm. Like we used to say in the 7th grade, “Smooth move, X-Lax.”

[cue Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic”]

At any rate, you Republicans out there can surely lament that Trump lacks the verbal acuity of Ronald Reagan, who as deftly as Richard Wilbur turned language topsy-turvy, calling ICBMs “peace keepers” and taxes “revenue enhancers,” but then Reagan, who hand-wrote his own letters, was a voracious reader, which Trump obviously is not.

[1] Via



Overcoming Writer’s Block/ Avoiding Suicide

painting by Rigney

painting by Rigney

There’s nothing worse than writer’s block. Okay, maybe famine, genocide, or a Mensa mixer is worse.

Ever been to a Mensa mixer?

Imagine it.  The space — a Quality Inn banquet room? Something more upscale? A Hyatt?

Tables, carpet patterns, windows, drapery, caterers.

Characters? Base them on people you know. One of your old high school teachers, an aging history droner with badly dyed hair (you choose the color).

Mix and unmatch outfits.

Add a recent widow with helmet-like hair and a nasal Midwestern accent, a brayer when amused.

You, the protagonist, a lonely man or woman who has joined out of desperation. There’s someone there you sort of dig, maybe.  Make him or her up yourself. Have your would-be love interest constantly checking a Tinder feed.

Or not.

It’s all up to you because I’m not going to write that short story. Writing fiction is too damned demanding.

Crucial Tip #1: One of the most effective ways to overcome writer’s block os to quit writing.


* * *

If you’re a poet and stuck, you can always come up with an image and start from there, whether it’s a memory from childhood, your alcoholic father snoring on a sofa at four PM on a Saturday, his hairy over-abundant stomach exposed beneath a too-small wifebeater, the stomach inflating and deflating while a college football game blares from the TV.

Or a tropically bright painted bunting with nervous eyes doing reconnaissance. He darts out of a thicket as he cops drops trickling from the so-called waterfall in an aquatic garden in your back yard. He flits back, disappearing into shadows.

Cf. Wordsworth and Dickinson.

water garden

Coming up with ideas for poems isn’t that taxing, but writing a good poem is almost impossible, and there’s absolutely no money in it.  Plus poets tend to commit suicide with such abnormally high rates that actuaries prefer to insure wingsuit fliers over sonneteers.

Crucial Tip # 2: One of the most effective ways to overcome writer’s block is to give up writing poetry. (It just very well could save your life).

Dead Suicide Poets Society

Dead Suicide Poets Society

* * *

Therefore, if you’re one of these self-indulgent people who must write, I suggest non-fiction, and it would seem there’s so much to write about – the homeless, McMansions, the state of the spray-on tan industry, the Death of God/the Republican Party, the history of Mensa/the fallibility inherent in IQ testing, sleep apnea, the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the evolution of intimate apparel, the problem of writing block and how to overcome it.

The Travails of Translation

la-fg-nice-france-crash-20160714-snapNBC news perhaps has an opening for a French translator. Whoever broke the story on their website about the tragic incident of a terrorist slamming his truck into a crowd watching Bastille Day fireworks rendered the Mayor of Nice’s tweet of warning:

in English to read:

Dear nice, the driver of a truck appears to have made dozens of deaths. Stay for the moment to your home. More info to come.”

Obviously, the web workers were in a hurry.  Obviously, they fed the tweet through an on-line translator. Obviously, in light of the slaughter, complaining about a translation from French to English is petty — if not in bad taste.

However, I grew up on the National Lampoon.  I am a connoisseur of bad taste, so allow me to continue and offer this advice to anyone needing to quickly translate.  Render the awkward computer-generated translation into the vernacular.  You don’t need to know French to take the raw translation above to change the text to this:

Dear Citizens of Nice, a truck driver is reported to have inflicted dozens of deaths.  For now, stay home.  More info is to come.

Of course, the original tweet isn’t as specific as it might be.  The Major might have tweeted

It appears that someone has plowed a truck into a crowd, and he may be a terrorist, so stay home until further notice.

But for all I know the nuances of the French language would somehow subtly convey the nefariousness without having it literally spelled out, but chances are Mayor Estrosi was himself in a hurry, not weighing words, or even more likely, assigning the tweet to an underling.

[Sigh].  I fear this infectious mayhem isn’t going to cease anytime soon.  I fear that it will make us grow callous, that we’ll start to brush off the loss of individual human lives and start carping about minutia, as I have done here, albeit with half a tongue in half a cheek.