When did the term “rhetoric” become an insult? When did the word cease to mean artfully crafted speech and start to convey scorn, as it does when we hear a campaign speech and mutter, “That’s just rhetoric”?
The answer is 1965, says John McWhorter in his recent book, “Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care” (Gotham Books, 279 pages, $26).
That happened to be the year McWhorter was born and the year color television began to elevate the visual over the written in American culture.
What’s more, 1965 — the year the first American combat troops were sent to Vietnam — also marked the era when trust in government began a plunge that would last the rest of the century and ruin the reputation of oratory.
But the ’60s also marked a more subtle and profound shift in American culture that altered the way we communicate, says McWhorter, a linguistics professor at the University of California at Berkeley and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
Not only did we come to regard political speech as manipulative, but we started to see formality in general as old-fashioned and insincere. The culture that bred casual Fridays and microwave dinners came to value “doing your own thing” over older standards of propriety, and this attitude has shaped our language, McWhorter says.
McWhorter is not your typical prophet of doom for formal English. In an earlier book, “Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of a `Pure’ Standard English,” (Perseus Publishing, 300 pages, $17.50) he argued that harrumphing about proper grammar is an ill-conceived effort to enforce the arbitrary rules imposed by long-dead scholars.
In its purest form, he maintains, human communication is oral and always changing — a point he revisits in his new book. He is interested in graceful and artful English, not `proper’ English, he says.
Certainly, Americans, in what McWhorter calls `post-oratorical America,’ do not speak and write as formally and decoratively as they did in the most ordinary conversations a century ago.
At the time of the Civil War, even the least educated, teenage soldiers writing letters or diaries were penning beautiful prose. McWhorter quotes the love letter of a 19-year-old store clerk in the 1830s who wishes to seize the day since “At best we live but one little hour, strut at our own conceit, and die.”
Try sending that kind of prose out in an e-mail today, and your sweetheart will quickly hit the delete button. “What gave us Americans a tacit sense that to wield the full resources of our native language is tacky?” McWhorter wonders in his book.
The result of our culture of informality is not only more ordinary English, but also muddier public discourse, McWhorter says in an interview by telephone.
“It can impede the development of precise thinking,” he says. “The most worrisome thing about this development is that it eliminates the space in the culture for speeches and addresses that make a careful, logical case for a point of view.”
Not that the change has been entirely harmful, McWhorter points out.
The ornate English that has fallen out of regular use, he says, “could be the vehicle of sophisticated argument, or it could be a wonderful way to say nothing at all.”
“Change is heartening in as many ways as it is sad,” McWhorter says. “I’m not a nostalgic person to any great extent.” He calls his book “an anthropological description.”
McWhorter says the triumph of the casual in American life was inevitable, but he suggests that artful English could have gone the way of good cooking — which we continue to appreciate, if not always practice.
Instead, McWhorter says, “We do not see English as worthy of that kind of loving, artful attention.”