William F. Buckley's picture

[Editor’s note: The dean and towering intellect of the American conservative movement — William F. Buckley Jr. — died in his study sometime Tuesday night. He had been ill for some time with emphysema, and had not filed a column since the first day of February. In that column, he used the previous night’s Obama-Clinton debate to assay the candidates’ use of the English language, an instrument and weapon of which he has been the absolute master for more than a half century. That Feb. 1 column — Buckley’s last — is reprinted below.]

In the debate last night, Hillary Clinton pronounced herself glad that Barack Obama had brought up the subject of foreign affairs.

The technique is common. It says to the audience that Clinton is aware of a deficiency in Obama and intends to exploit it for all it is worth. The danger is that it gives Obama an opportunity to turn the score on Clinton by saying that he just happens to have made his living for three years by writing on foreign affairs for the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

These verbal traps are widely used and widely counter-used. The best collection of them appears in the last few pages of Fowler’s “Modern English Usage,” but of course that section is only a small part of his great work. It is worth acquainting the reader with the teeming harvest of Fowler’s analysis.

He offers us, for instance, a list of words owing their vogue to the joy of showing that one has acquired them: allergic, ambience, ambivalent, catalyst, complex, equate, global, idiosyncrasy, protagonist, repercussion, seminal, streamlined.

He gives another list of words taken up merely as novel variants on a more common word: adumbrate for sketch, blueprint for plan, breakthrough for achievement, built-in for solid, ceiling for limit, claim for assert, integrate for combine, intrigue for interest, liquidate for destroy, reaction for opinion, optimistic for hopeful, redundant for superfluous, rewarding for satisfying, significant for important, sabotage for wreck, target for objective, smear for calumny.

And there are words owing their vogue to some particular occasion, plus “popularized technicalities” (words legitimately used in some scientific discipline, but brought carelessly into general use): acid test, coexistence, exponential growth, geometric progression, iron curtain, psychological moment, winds of change. And words of rhetorical appeal: archetypal, challenging, dedicated, fabulous, fantastic, massive, overtones, sensational, unthinkable.

My reluctance to quote at such length from the great Fowler is mitigated by my serious wish that students of the English language would themselves take the initiative of familiarizing themselves with the profundities and niceties of the points being made by Mr. Fowler.

So Sen. Clinton will tell us that Sen. Obama has no first-hand executive experience. Obama in turn will imply that the kind of experience one gets as first lady is not of the same order as one gets as president, and that he has felt as keenly as she the pulse beat that resonates only in Congress, not in executive offices.

The viewer will have noted that it is expressions of this kind — i.e., personalized derogation and hauteur — that elicit the most vivid response from the audience. Presidential candidates no longer even try to sound like the Lincoln-Douglas debates, yet it is not bad occasionally to subject them to such analysis, to learn what it is that is not being said.

The matter of health care that has been primary in Mrs. Clinton’s public career lends itself to special attention. She put forth an ambitious program when her husband was in his first term as president. But there were serious defects in that program, which her opponents were able to locate precisely because of their experience in the practical world of politics that she sought to gainsay.

Those opponents, led by Rep. Newt Gingrich, were able to derail the program the Clinton administration had billed as its most important domestic initiative.

And yet in Thursday night’s debate Mrs. Clinton cited that plan — which she implied she would revive unchanged — as one of her principal claims to the presidency.

The two performers in the debate struck the observant conservative as intelligent, resourceful and absolutely uninterested in the vector of political force.

Both contenders should spend time on the problem of omnipotent government, and both, while entitled to criticize what has happened under President Bush, are obliged to an alert audience to speak the kind of language Fowler preached and preached in.


login to post comments | William F. Buckley's blog