Chicago Tribune: Words of….oh, Nevermind

Chicago Tribune – June 02, 2012

U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Chicago, responded last week to a report by the Sunlight Foundation, an organization seeking more transparency and accountability in government, that “Congress now speaks at almost a full grade level lower than it did just seven years ago.” In wry defense of congressional speechifying, Quigley quoted Shakespeare and Homer Simpson, while also channeling the crisp speech of the man who previously held his seat, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Sunlight Foundation retorted in kind, pointing out that Quigley’s┬ástatement still didn’t reach above the high school level. Sunlight, probably not eager to fight with a man who regularly wields hockey sticks, did admit that it hadn’t factored Quigley’s “fancy” vocabulary into its rating, because “they are all just words with syllables.” The exchange:

Congressional Record, May 30, 2012

Honoring Sunlight Foundation,

Mr. Quigley, of Illinois

“Mr. Speaker, I rise, as doth the golden orb pulled across the sky each day by the chariot of Apollo, to decry an ignominy perpetuated on this body by the captious Sunlight Foundation.

Mr. Speaker, the Sunlight Foundation says we talk dumb.

How can the House of Lincoln, Jefferson and Wilbur Mills suffer such excoriation?

I deem the Sunlight Foundation’s findings fatuous. There has been no deliquescence of congressional discourse.

Speak we not of life, liberty and hockey?

In the words of Francois de La Rochefoucauld, who I believe was a defenseman for the original Canucks, “True eloquence consists in saying all that should be said, and that only.”

So true. That is why as the elected arbiter of erudition from the 5th congressional district, I decry the foundation’s obvious schadenfreude in our dictional dystopia.

Let me repeat that word again: schadenfreude, which captures the zeitgeist of this badinage.

That is not to say there have not been errors in eloquence. But soft! What F-bombs from Rahm’s office breaks?

His monosyllabic vocabulary evoked images of the corporeal, the priapic and the unprintable.

Alas, our words may not always dance “trippingly on the tongue,” as Hamlet encourages of his players in Act III of that eponymous work.

But nor do they need to. As Bertrand Russell said, “To acquire immunity to eloquence is of the utmost importance to the citizens of a democracy.”

And so we do our best in pursuit of that august goal.

As to the Sunlight Foundation’s farcical fomentations, I leave you with the thoughts of one post-modern philosopher, known for his dialectical ruminations on the salubrious effects of fermented hops and barley.

“Facts are meaningless,” notes Homer Simpson. “You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!”

So if the Sunlight Foundation must lampoon our verbal buffoonery, reducing us to linguistic lummoxes, remember Cecil Terwilliger’s immortal retort to his brother Sideshow Bob’s comment about spending four years in clown college: “I’ll thank you not to refer to Princeton that way.”

Dear Rep. Quigley: right back at ya, re: Sunlight’s congressional speech study:

With this post, I offer my humble appreciation that you should deign to take to the House floor to, as you so eloquently say, “decry an ignominy perpetuated on this body by the captious Sunlight Foundation.”

The ignominy you refer to, the findings that you deem “fatuous,” sir, are those from our recent study, the one in which we found that congressional speech had dropped a full grade level since 2005, prompting much discussion as to whether Congress is indeed, as we say in the popular parlance, “dumbing it down.”

I must admit, sir, your clever references do sparkle and shine:

“So if the Sunlight Foundation must lampoon our verbal buffoonery, reducing us to linguistic lummoxes, remember Cecil Terwilliger’s immortal retort to his brother Sideshow Bob’s comment about spending four years in clown college: “I’ll thank you not to refer to Princeton that way.”

Consider me besotted, bemused and bewitched by your rapier wit (not to mention your fulsome GRE-worthy lexicon).

But, I will not go on long. Rather, to borrow from Polonius, “since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief.”

Sir, we ran your speech through the Flesch-Kincaid calculator. Grade level: 9.858. 334 words, 560 syllables, 23 sentences.

Your speech is a mix of high and low discourse, but it does expose some of the brute force of the F-K test. The test makes no accounting for all your fancy words (zeitgeist, badinage, schadenfreude, priapic, salubrious). They are all just words with syllables. As we warned in the original post: “It is important to understand the limitations of this metric: It tells us nothing about the clarity or correctness of a passage of text.”

Or rather, in the eternal words of our apparently shared favorite philosopher, Homer Simpson, “I am so smart, I am so smart, s-m-r-t … I mean s-m-A-r-t.”

By | 2017-02-14T15:42:03+00:00 June 7th, 2012|News|0 Comments

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