(Box of vocabulary cards photo credit)
I am old enough to remember vocabulary cards. So old that I remember the absolute THRILL of getting a new box, all clean and fresh, 1000 cards with words and phonetic spellings on the front, definitions on the back. In my high school the smartest girls memorized the entire box — in order! I was not among the smartest, or perhaps not that ambitious. I tried but could only memorize about 250 before I lost interest.
But words! Words! Words! How important it was to learn the words, to know the vocabulary, to treasure the knowledge that really learned people — like those we’d meet in college — knew what words like “prevarication” meant and could use “pernicious” in a sentence correctly. In my very fine Catholic girls school outside of Philadelphia (Merion Mercy Academy, still a powerhouse!) we learned the words and sparred in multiple syllables and dissected the meaning of language not only in English but Latin and French as well. Woe to the girl in Sr. Juanita’s Latin class who did not know the declensions and genders and gerundives and tenses and pluperfect subjunctives. We were vocabulary nerds and we learned the importance of knowing the meaning of words to expose truth and defeat deceit.
(Vocabulary cards photo credit)
Those of us educated to reverence words, to hold them up at the best weapon we have to preserve and defend freedom of thought and speech and belief, could only read with positive revulsion the story last week about how someone in a position of power in the Trump Administration told people at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that they must not use certain words in their budget submission to the Office of Management and Budget. The Washington Post broke the story of the “seven banned words” at CDC, which include:
While not nearly as naughty as George Carlin’s “7 dirty words” the words banned at the CDC have far greater ramifications for our society and way of life, and banning them is far more threatening than censoring a word that is merely a barnyard obscenity.
In fairness the CDC director has refuted the story, saying that there are no “banned” words at the CDC. But something clearly did happen to trigger the Washington Post story. A subsequent New York Times story suggested that the flap over the words was about advice to CDC people about how to avoid controversy while getting their budget approved. Or so the story goes. Whatever.
What we do know is that the words listed evoke contentious political fights, and just like the prevalence of climate change deniers in the current administration, there are those who might prefer to remain uninformed on such fraught topics as “diversity” and “entitlements” and “vulnerable” people rather than have to face the truth and deal with the consequences of our rather diverse, entitled and vulnerable society. The eruption of talk about transgender people in 2017 certainly made some lawmakers very uncomfortable, prompting the president of the United States to try to ban such persons from military service even though his beloved generals all argued against the ban. It’s hard to know why the word “fetus” is on the list since it’s a perfectly clear and unambiguous scientific term, but no explanation accompanied the ban. We’d need evidence for the ban, but if you ban “evidence-based” explanations, well of course you’ll never find out why something is no longer permissible in government discourse. In the same way, what is “science-based” means that it’s not just your personal opinion, but rather, something rooted in objective and provable fact, and that is just a difficult notion for those who would prefer that we go with their explanations cooked up over cocktails and well-done steaks.
Much has been made of the Orwellian nature of this episode, of the totalitarian instinct to control words and thereby to control the people governed. Citations to efforts already underway to de-fund climate science, to purge the State Department of people who know what they are doing, to promote sketchy educational ideas instead of those proven to be central to an educated citizenry. All of this may be true.
But backing away from too much nihilism, let’s give the perpetrators of this silliness a break and propose that what they really need is a refresher course on words. I think we need to insist on periodic vocabulary lessons for our elected officials. After all, they work for us — We, the People — and WE should have some way of assessing whether the people we’ve chosen to wield great power (including the use of our tax dollars, which we now will have more or less of depending on whom you believe) — whether those people know what the heck they are talking about.
I am considering making a customized box of vocabulary cards for the Trump Administration and members of Congress. We’d test them every so often in a town-hall meeting program, perhaps emceed by whomever is still employed to do television by then. I’m starting with the words below — I invite readers to add your words to the list of what should be in the vocabulary box for the leaders of our nation. Here are the first few words:
OF, BY AND FOR THE PEOPLE
What other words? Help build the customized vocabulary word box for our public officials by adding words in the comments section below. Thanks!
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Read my latest speech at the NEASC annual meeting: Flickering in the Dark: Tiki Torches or Lamps of Learning?