Donald Trump possesses the vocabulary of a six-year old. There. I’ve said it. His soundbite reaction to the recent terror attack in Manchester, England, could well have come from a first-grader. Occasionally he’ll blurt out a big word he’s heard from a grown-up, but mostly he spouts a limited range of one- and two-syllable favorites: ‘loser’, ‘big’, ‘bigly’ (who’d have thought that was a thing?), ‘huge’, ‘very’. To us Europeans, and to most literate Americans he is an object of ridicule, but in a country where 87% of adults have a reading level of ‘less than proficient’*, Lord Dampnut is speaking a language the majority can understand. No rhetoric here, just plain, old-timey comic-book lingo that the average baseball-cap wearing, gun-toting good ole boy can understand without phoning a friend. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing; maybe it’s time for those of us who have actually read a book or two to climb down from our high horses and, well, get over ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong, I love words. I live for literature. I eat novels for breakfast. I write for a living. As a librarian for some twenty-five years I fought against the snobbery shown by some of my colleagues when the craze for graphic novels and manga began. Reluctant readers, especially young boys, suddenly found something in books they could relate to. Kids who had never been to a library suddenly clamored for the next Pokemon adventure. It was OK for 8-12 year olds to read books with colored pictures. It was cool to be caught reading! There was palpable relief on the faces of parents who had previously been tearing their hair out trying to encourage their offspring to read. And although I would still see grandparents and well-meaning great-aunts wistfully eyeing the Beatrix Potters and untouched editions of Little Women, I would explain to them that it really didn’t matter what children read, so long as they read something. Even the back of a cereal box over breakfast was better than nothing; and from there to a non-threatening, short book, with bright, engaging pictures and not-too-many words on each page is but a short step.
I experienced a similar effect with the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ phenomenon. Women (mostly) who wouldn’t voluntarily be seen dead in a library (a sort of inverse snobbery popular in my part of the UK), were now actually joining the library and bringing their friends along too. Not only that, but once they’d worked their way through the trilogy, they asked for more! M’Lud, I rest my case. Senior librarians threw their hands up in horror that I would encourage such liberated nonsense. There was a general feeling from the powers-that-be that they preferred falling visitor numbers and failing libraries to the radical concept of giving people what they wanted. They should be reading Dostoevsky or nothing!
So, let’s circle back to 45 and his down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach to the English language. And I use the terms ‘nonsense’ and ‘English language’ advisedly in his case. As I’ve said in previous articles, America is a kindergarten nation, ruled over by toddlers. If Great Britain was the same age, we’d be living in the 1450s. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when America’s petulant president finds big words baffling, concepts confusing and manners mystifying. Perhaps we should exercise some patience and follow the ‘gold medal’ example set by the Saudis during Trump’s presidential visit; placate the baby with something shiny and distracting. The diplomatic equivalent of a gold star sticker for literacy progress. Is it time for us to dumb down, or for the leader of the free world to wise up?
* National Institute of Literacy, August 2016.