THE BLOG
01/09/2012 12:17 pm ET | Updated Mar 10, 2012

Help Me Understand...

... why we can't pay more attention to the great thinkers and communicators of the past, giants of the written and spoken word. Among my favorites is Winston Churchill. Here is what he said:

"All great things are simple and many can be expressed in single words: freedom, justice, honour, duty, mercy, hope" and "Broadly speaking, the short words are the best and the old words best of all."

Winston Churchill was a master of the English language. Reading him is a joy and a lesson. Wherever you open one of his books, the text glows and the reader's mind reflects that golden aura. If only more of us could emulate him linguistically. Apparently, we can't.

Language is under attack on all sides, dumbing us down, denying our highest linguistic aspirations. "I go . . . ," "and she's all" . . . and "So I'm, like . . . " refer to speaking, in a wretched modern perversion of speech. How many times does your average multi-million-dollar 'celebrity' say "Y'know"? Caroline Kennedy managed 232 'y'knows' in one recent interview, in the record. Or try one of GM's relentless TV advertising jingles, from a Mellenkamp 'lyric,' " . . . folks like me and you." How do you pronounce 'nuclear?' It's, let's see, well, um, duh, shucks, 'nucular.' MayORal and electrORal, instead of the correct MAYoral and ELECToral (at least they don't say 'pecTORal'). Or the ever-popular 'Feb-yoo-erry,' vs. the correct Feb-roo-erry.' The list of abuses is endless.

Where does it start? In the home and in school, where no one is in charge of getting it right and no one seems to care. The neglect of proper usage extends from home and school like ripples in a pond, engulfing us in a tsunami of illiteracy. It reaches up, in the record, to the highest offices and institutions in the land, with 'leaders' who can hardly pronounce their own names and have the seeming IQs of pre-pubescent gerbils.

And our leaders, for example some of those aspiring to the highest office in the land? I want to be led and inspired by intelligent, curious and well-informed men and women who are at the top of their game and their profession, who can express themselves with blinding clarity. "Speak proper English, you're regarded as a freak" (thanks, GBS and Alan Jay Lerner). Elitist? So sue me.

Media prolixity, pomposity and bafflegab have ousted Winston's plea for simplicity, and are often wildly wrong. 'Momentarily' sounds important except when used to indicate 'in a moment' -- "We will return 'momentarily'," says the announcer, unaware that it means 'for a moment.' What exactly is a 'restauranteur' (sic) as described by Lesley Stahl on '60 Minutes' on January 8, 2012? 'Presently' means 'soon,' not 'now.' 'In the event that' = 'if.' 'I am of the opinion that' = 'I think.' '. . . in the northbound direction' = 'north.' You get the idea. I'll stop the ranting and browbeating.

Where does it end? It doesn't, as far as I can see. In fact, it's worsening daily. There is no hope.

Why should we care? Because our inability to express ourselves with clarity, simplicity and vigor is the death of effective human affairs. The light at the end of the tunnel is that we, if we care enough to speak and write properly, will shine.

That's how Winnie would have wanted it. I am sure of it. Clarity begins at home.