One of my favorite quotes: “The president likes smart people who disagree with him,” said White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry on “The West Wing.”
My wife is the smartest person I know — certainly smarter than I am — and she disagrees with me often. Daily. Hourly. Sometimes twice in the same sentence. Often while I am just waking up.
And if any of you ever show her this column, there’ll be hell to pay.
I think it’s important to find people who are more intelligent and befriend (or even marry) them. I didn’t arrive at my strongest convictions on my own, but by discussing my thoughts with smarter people.
This past week, a man called the newsroom to ask a few questions about South Amherst’s pothole problem a couple of years back, prior to the repaving of Quarry Road. I didn’t have immediate access to the answer he was looking for.
“I thought you knew everything,” he said, whether in disappointment or mockingly, I couldn’t tell.
My response: I wish I knew everything, because that would make my life a lot simpler.
But it wouldn’t solve everything. What you know is only valuable if you can then communicate it.
That was a frustrating conversation, during which I wondered whether the fine gentleman and I were speaking entirely different languages. It felt as though I was hearing his answers via a Japanese translator who was in turn talking to a Swahili translator who delivered the message in English.
I want to stress that this was not the gentleman’s fault.
When he looks at a pothole, he sees a pothole. When I look at a pothole, I see jurisdictions and Ohio Public Works Commission cost-sharing grants, and multi-year construction phases.
He wanted to know who was responsible for the potholes on Quarry Road, which seems like a pretty easy question. But if you dabble in government (and come out sane on the other side) you know there are nuances: Where exactly was the pothole in question? Was it in the village or the township? Was it part of the county road or the dedicated city street? When was the application filed for a state paving grant, and when was it awarded? Was the pothole part of rehabilitation phase one or two? Was there posted signage?
We floundered, trying to make our terminology match up.
The conversation got me thinking about the importance of precise, effective vocabulary. My wife — again, the smartest person I know — laughs at the way I talk. I use vocabulary inspired by the late Bob Harrigan, my freshman English teacher, who asked: Why use five words when you can use one?
Harrigan drilled us weekly on vocabulary lists. Then he made us use those words in essays.
Some of my favorites (definitions via Merriam-Webster):
• Ostensibly — To all outward appearances.
• Conspicuous — Obvious to the eye or mind.
• Fallacy — A false or mistaken idea.
• Venerable — Calling forth respect through age, character, and attainments.
• Eponymous — Of, relating to, or being the person or thing for whom or which something is named.
These are great words, brimming with denoted meaning, highly effective in conversation. That is, as long as the person you’re talking with knows them intimately.
More often, they draw wrinkled foreheads and rolled eyes. And that means’ they’re not effective tools for communication.
The problem is that our language is being dumbed down. Less precise words result in less precise ideas flowing from one person to the next. The solution isn’t just to sigh and use lowest common denominator vocabulary, but to push each other to think about how we speak and why the words we use matter.
If you want to exercise your vocab, here are some words to get you started.
Look up: abrogate, belie, circumlocution, deleterious, epiphany, facetious, gerrymander, homogeneous, infrastructure, jingoism, kinetic, lexicon, malevolence, nomenclature, oligarchy, pedantic, quotidian, recapitulate, sacrosanct, taciturn, ubiquitous, vehement, wean, xenophobia, yoke, and zealot.