The usefulness of all those words

William F. Buckley
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Posted: Aug 01, 2000 12:00 AM
A friend passes along a trivium, which churned in the mind beginning immediately. It is that the typical man utters 10,000 words every day, the woman, 25,000. As is one's way on coming upon stray data, the tendency is to translate them into familiar integers like: It's about a thousand miles to Chicago from New York, and to the moon is 240,000 miles. That's the equivalent of 120 round-trips to Chicago.

Ten thousand words a day each for Al Gore and George W., 25,000 each for Tipper and Laura. Of course, that assumes they will be speaking during the campaign at about the average rate. One supposes, at first, that in a day of campaigning, they will speak more -- all those addresses and stump speeches and the lot. On the other hand, maybe between speeches they are permitted to clam up ("Karl, don't chat with Al. He has to save up for the speeches in Bloomington, Indianapolis and Cleveland ..."). All Al needs to say at that point is, "Shut up, Tipper!" and to say that doesn't use up a lot of words.

One tends to take the measure of great quantities by building on familiar standards, as mentioned. As a boy I attended a school at which every student was required to give a 1,000-word speech once every academic year to the entire body of students (80). The headmaster allotted five to seven minutes for this torture (torture both for the speechmaker and his audience). We are to construe, from the data, that men tend to speak, between waking and bedtime, 10 times the volume spoken by the terror-stricken boy speaking nonstop to the school assembly. That's the equivalent of rattling off 10 speeches every day. And! -- in the case of the woman -- 25 speeches per day. A waking day being, say, 16 hours, the woman's allotment comes to 1,500 words per hour. Granted, these words are not, like the boy speechmakers', spoken back to back. If that were so, we'd have 12,000 words per hour.

The telephone company would no doubt tell you how many words are spoken in a typical minute by a typical phone-user. I knew a man married to a friendly woman whose beneficences were regularly communicated over the telephone to family and friends. The husband would sit in the living room, reading the paper or a book, and every few minutes would permit himself to say, simply -- "TCCM." That meant: Telephone Calls Cost Money. After a half-dozen of those, his wife would clutch down and soon, utter a few words of farewell, putting down the telephone. How many words would she have spoken? And is the ratio -- 25 to 10 -- here suggested nicely caught? She is warbling along about this and that, up against his simple "TCCM"?

I did a recording for the blind of one of my books, and the accrued time was 9 hours, 32 minutes. The book is about 70,000 words long. The figures we are examining tell us that in recording that book I'd be pronouncing no more than my conversational quota for seven days. That doesn't sound so sweaty. But then the novel I read out had a narrative, a proper first act, second act, and third act. Do words that end up telling a tale cause less of a strain on the listener than plain old badinage?

Not so clear, not at all. In the four hours required to hear "Hamlet" -- for the sake of convenience, think of it as 60 schoolboy speeches, or 60,000 words -- do we feel less tired than after a four-hour session at home with visitors, going through cocktails, dinner, postdinner conversation, maybe a little poker? There is the difference that if listening to "Hamlet" one absolutely has to concentrate on what is being said. That is more of a strain than absorbing, more or less, the more or less unabsorbing contributions of a visitor.

If it is a politician we are listening to, we know that what he speaks will reflect the speechwriters' awareness of limited attention spans. There will therefore be strophes designed to cause the listener to turn his head from side to side, which heightens attention and inhibits sleepiness.

Those always in search of utilitarian opportunities have an interesting challenge in the figures cited. When Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee woke in the medieval court and saw Simon Stylites perched on top of a pillar, he thought to harness a wheel with a bell attached to a generator, so that while in pious service of the Lord, the stylite could simultaneously generate electricity.

What might Al Gore simultaneously generate while speaking his 10,000 words per day? Well, he could fortify the national reserves of patience, fatalism, endurance. Perhaps, at the next convention, he will announce his new discovery.