Why Cant the Americans?
November 30, 2000
Malcolm Bradbury died the other
day, aged 68. Actually, he was Sir Malcolm. A knight. I didnt know
that. I knew almost nothing about him, except that I liked him.
I liked him for one sentence I came
across in a collection of modern quotations: It had always seemed
to Louis that a fundamental desire to take postal courses was being
sublimated by other people into sexual activity. A man who could
write that line was worth knowing. It appeared in a book with the inspired
title Eating People Is Wrong a sentiment I heartily
endorse and can only admire him for putting into words.
He also wrote: I like the
English. They have the most rigid code of immorality in the world.
And this: You Liberals think that goats are just sheep from broken
homes. Dont you love him already?
The English speak their language so
well. We Americans borrow it and mess it up. We dont know how to
have fun with it. We think polish is phony; it embarrasses us. For them
polish is joy. We allow them to practice it, because its their way;
but we frown on it amongst ourselves.
What could be more English than
Gilbert and Sullivan? Gilberts deadly wit could take the form of a
one-sentence letter of complaint to a railway company: Sir, Sunday
morning, though recurring at regular and well foreseen intervals, always
seems to take this railway by surprise. No volume of yelling could
make the point so well.
Even English politicians can be witty.
When the Earl of Sandwich predicted that John Wilkes would die
either on the gallows or of a loathesome disease, Wilkes
instantly retorted: That depends, my lord, whether I embrace your
principles or your mistress. Another politician said of an opponent
that he has sat on the fence so long that the iron has entered his
soul. Yet another quipped: The honorable gentleman is
indebted to his memory for his jests, and to his imagination for his
And of course Winston Churchill was
renowned for his merciless epigrams. He said of Ramsay MacDonald:
We know that he has, more than any other man, the gift of
compressing the largest amount of words into the smallest amount of
thought. Of Clement Atlee: He is a sheep in wolfs
clothing. He also called Atlee a modest little man with
much to be modest about.
F.E. Smith, a lawyer, was once scolded
by a judge: I have read your case, Mr. Smith, and I am no wiser now
than I was when I started. Smith replied politely: Possibly
not, my lord, but far better informed.
Why hasnt this country, which
is not totally devoid of intelligence and humor, cultivated wit as the
English have? Ordinarily, we Americans prize efficiency, and wit might be
defined as efficiency of expression. But we use the English language very
inefficiently, wasting huge quantities of words.
Our politicians are among the worst speakers of English on
either side of the Atlantic. Or Pacific, for that matter. Here is a sentence
Al Gore, alleged intellectual, spoke the other day: In many ways,
the act of voting and having that vote counted is more important than who
wins the majority of the votes that are cast, because whoever wins, the
victor will know that the American people have spoken with a voice made
mighty by the whole of its integrity. As for George W. Bush, even
the attempt to utter a simple sentence defeats him: I know how
hard it is to put food on your family.
Such verbal clumsiness is unworthy
of any human being, let alone those who are supposed to be exemplary
leaders. What makes it really appalling is that Gore went to Harvard and
Bush to Yale. Maybe they dont teach remedial English in the Ivy
The habit of witty expression adds an
element of fun to English public life. American politics is distinguished by
the sheer dreary banality of its language. Our politicians feel no obligation
to be succinct, let alone delightful, in speech.
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