Language and Its Discontents

Posted: Dec 14, 2010 12:01 AM
Language and Its Discontents

Dear Foreign Student,

It was wholly a pleasure to get your letter asking for the definition of a word that mystified you in one of my columns: bloviation.

What the heck does that mean, you asked -- in the politest way, of course, as befits a visitor. Sometimes the manners of foreigners puts ours to shame here in the land of the free, the home of the brazen.

You add that you often run across words in my column that you can't understand, or even find in your dictionary.

You needn't be embarrassed; I get the same comment from native English speakers.

A confession: Sometimes I make up a word to get my meaning across, confident that readers will get it from context. Or that they'll be able to puzzle it out. And might even derive some satisfaction from having a new word at their disposal. There's nothing like having a word for something previously unarticulated. It comes in handy as a pocket on a shirt.

Coining words is another way to connect with Gentle Reader, and a newspaper columnist can't make enough such connections. The aim is to make the column as much a part of your morning as breakfast.

Whether you agree or disagree with the opinions expressed in a column matters less than whether I'm communicating in good faith, and good fellowship--and giving you something to think about, even laugh about.

From time to time, I'm told, "I don't agree with a word you say, but you certainly write well." I'd much rather hear that than the other way 'round. ("I agree with everything you write, but how poorly you express it!")

Bloviation is one of my favorite words, which may not come as a surprise in a member of the chattering class. It goes back at least as far as H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), an American journalist whose work appeared mainly in the Baltimore Sun. It means extravagant oratory, rodomontade, inflated rhetoric. ... As you can imagine, it has become near about indispensable when describing political speech.

Bloviation's similarity to 'blow,' as in blowing up a balloon or blowing in the wind, is no coincidence, connoting as it does empty rhetoric. Another of Mr. Mencken's informal words, similar in meaning, was gasbaggery. Which I hope is self-explanatory. Both will surely remain relevant as long as politicians give speeches.

Mr. Mencken could be a pretty fair bloviator himself, at least in his old age. But when he was still young in years and spirit, he was a matchless critic of all things American. Consider his classic summary of Warren G. Harding's rhetorical style:

"He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."

Mr. Mencken's description of Harding's oratorical effect, or lack of same, approaches art. That president's prose brings to mind any number of editorials I've read and, much more frightening, some I've written. The only sure cure for bloviation is a sense of humor, which tends to take the wind out of rhetorical sails and give the craft some balance.

Mencken's best stuff had both biting criticism and good humor, and the ideal column should have both. Unfortunately, too many of them have only one dull tone, and nothing is more boring than a piece of rhetoric that never varies in style.

Only when he grew old and bitter, and his reactions reflexive, did Mencken cease to be interesting, that is, cease to be Mencken. Living too long can be an awful thing.

All the best to you. I wish Americans were as curious about other languages as you are about ours.

Glad to be of service ,

Inky Wretch