Go into any part of the country, North, East, South or West, and you will find multitudes of his brothers, car conductors in Philadelphia, immigrants of the second generation in the East Side of New York, iron-workers in the Pittsburgh region, corner grocers in St. Louis, holders of petty political jobs in Atlanta and New Orleans, small farmers in Kansas or Kentucky, house carpenters in Ohio, tinners and plumbers in Chicago — genuine Americans all, bawling patriots, hot for the home team, marchers in parades, readers of the yellow newspapers, fathers of families, sheep on election day, undistinguished norms of the Homo Americanus. Such typical Americans, after a fashion, know English. They read it — all save the “hard” words, i. e., all save about 90 per cent of the words of Greek and Latin origin. They can understand perhaps two-thirds of it as it comes from the lips of a political orator or clerygman. They have a feeling that it is, in some recondite sense, superior to the common speech of their kind. They recognize a fluent command of it as the salient mark of a “smart” and “educated” man, one with “the gift of gab.” But they themselves never speak it or try to speak it, nor do they look with approbation on efforts in that direction by their fellows.
In no other way, indeed, is the failure of popular education made more vividly manifest.
H.L. Mencken, “The American Language”, 1921
* * *
Are you still here after all that?
I just noticed that the Barnes & Noble Review has a mention of Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric by Ward Farnsworth, a professor at the Boston University School of Law. And from everything I’ve read, it’s a very good and useful book indeed, especially for classical home schooling types who enjoy their grammar, logic, and rhetoric.
The most immediate pleasure of this book is that it heightens one’s appreciation of the craft of great writers and speakers. Mr. Farnsworth includes numerous examples from Shakespeare and Dickens, Thoreau and Emerson, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln. He also seems keen to rehabilitate writers and speakers whose rhetorical artistry is undervalued; besides his liking for Chesterton, he shows deep admiration for the Irish statesman Henry Grattan (1746-1820), whose studied repetition of a word (“No lawyer can say so; because no lawyer could say so without forfeiting his character as a lawyer”) is an instance, we are told, of conduplicatio. But more than anything Mr. Farnsworth wants to restore the reputation of rhetorical artistry per se, and the result is a handsome work of reference.
(Mr. Hitchings should know, since he is author of the new The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, which, as The Guardian‘s Deborah Cameron writes, “takes the reader on a Cook’s tour of complaints about English past and present in a bid to show that the obsessions of the complainers are (a) as old as the hills, (b) based on no linguistic logic, and (c) ultimately futile, since no one can stop language from varying and changing.” Good stuff.)
“Everyone speaks and writes in patterns,” Farnsworth begins, arguing that our choices among patterns still make a powerful difference in whether words work for us or not. Such rhetorical figures “tend to show up often in utterances that are long remembered” he notes—the Rev. Martin Luther King’s eightfold “I have a dream” repetition was pure anaphora, and JFK’s “Ask not… ” a case of pure chiasmus—so it’s worth identifying them.
At the same time, Farnsworth recognizes that rhetorical figures often fail because, in the hands of politicians, they‘re “strained efforts to make dull claims sound snappy,” or they don’t sound “spontaneous,” or a speaker simply overdoes it.
How, he wisely asks, “does one study techniques that succeed only when they seem unstudied?”
His answer: by piling on examples until any idiot can separate the spellbinding from the spectacularly flat.
I’ll need to get a copy of the book if only to determine how much of the snappy Mr. Mencken is included. More Mencken, from his Creed, a masterpiece of conduplicatio:
I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind — that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.
I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.
I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty…
I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.
I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech…
I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.
I believe in the reality of progress.
I — But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.