Dumbing Down

Today's post was going to be something clever about how in the past week or so I'd found myself the butt of an argument I hadn't encountered since high school: someone berating me for using "big words" and assuming that because I was well-educated that meant that I was incapable of communicating with those less book-learned than myself. Instead, ironically enough, I have a headache--brought on, most likely, by a weekend spent sorting books so as to clear out space on our stuffed-to-bursting bookcases at home--and am reduced to watching Gilligan's Island, now conveniently available over the Internet (ah, nostalgia for when TV was TV!). If I didn't have this headache, I'm sure I could make something of all of this. About the way in which simplicity often conceals complexity and vice versa, or about the way in which the characters on G.I. represent the Seven Deadly Sins (although nobody can really seem to agree which ones). Instead, I'm stuck here waiting for visions, like Hildegard of Bingen, but then this isn't much of a headache, just eyestrain and fatigue, whereas Hildegard was probably suffering something rather more severe.

What about Gilligan? Nobody on the island, not even the Professor, seems terribly bright. No witty repartee like we have become accustomed to with shows such as...well, I'll think of one in a minute. Something British, like A Bit of Fry and Laurie or Blackadder. But, no, that won't do because everyone--everyone American, at least--knows that the British are all over-educated prigs who happily look down on those less endowed linguistically than they.* Can you say, sore spot? I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "We don't understand those big words down here," like exegesis and christological. And this for a discussion group that was supposed to be about the Psalms. I'm overreacting I know, but really, where else but in America would somebody with expertise in the very thing that one was wanting to learn about be considered a liability to effective conversation?

So, in charity, I started to wonder. I have never consciously in my life used a "big word" so as to intimidate somebody. Yes, I've introduced them into conversations among my colleagues, but there it is more a testing of blades among equals--"If I feint here with deictic, will you counter with indexical?"--than it is an effort to embarrass someone for knowing less than I do. Why would I do that? I am a teacher and for as long as I can remember have always wanted to be able to explain things in a way that made sense. If I use a "big word" it is not to bewilder, but because it is the right word for the purpose, and if you don't know what I mean, then you should ask! And I will do my best to find another way to explain. The truth of the matter is these aren't "big words" to me; they are just the words that I use in thinking about the problems that I do, much as if I were a financial analyst I would use words like--well, what would I use? I don't know. That's not my professional vocabulary.

Doctors are famous for using words that laypeople do not understand, like cardiac and pulmonary and infarction and neuralgia. Why can't they just say "heart-related" and "lung-related" and "blockage" and "nerve-pain"? Are they trying to impress or befuddle? Or are they simply describing things the way they think about them and need to be reminded that these are not the words that everybody else tends to use? My father was a heart surgeon and could wield words like these with the best of them, but he was also a hot rod racer and loved hanging out with the folks who like to work on cars. Which do you think I found more intimidating: all the talk of "indications for thoracotomy following penetrating thoracic injury" (as per one of my father's medical papers) or that of "the 454 CID LS5 V8" on the Chevy Chevelle?**

See, I knew I couldn't sustain this with this headache. It's like thinking through a fog. But it's hard, too, because for the purposes of this argument, I'm trying to think outside of my usual vocabulary, pulling out words that I only ever heard my father use and didn't always really understand. I can imagine someone in my circumstances saying to him, "Bob, why do you have to use such big words? We don't understand you." But I don't think I ever did hear anyone say that to him. They might say, "There goes Doc again, talking about them thermodynamics," but they recognized that it was valuable having someone around who could think about engines abstractly and not just on the basis of mechanical expertise. Dad needed them, too; he didn't have the tools or the practice to be able to bore engine blocks (if that's what you do with engine blocks) and he respected them for their skills.

What I think I'm trying to say here is that civilization--what was missing on Gilligan's Island--takes all kinds of skills, some of them mechanical, some artistic, some financial (if only!), some linguistic and/or conceptual and that I resent being ostracized for exercising one of these skills to a level that others have not yet, and indeed, may never achieve. But then I am sure they have skills that I don't and would find it incredibly rude of me to insist that they dumb down their discussion of auto mechanics or carpentry simply because I didn't know what they were talking about. I would hope that if I asked questions because I wanted to learn how to make my car go faster or finish a bookcase, they would be able to adapt their vocabulary so that I could understand. But I would hardly accuse a mechanic of talking over my head because he used terms like carburetor or compression ratio.*** In return, I would hope that if he wanted to learn to think more about how God revealed himself to humanity through Scripture, he would be willing to listen to my talk about hermeneutics (a.k.a. interpretation) and kenosis (a.k.a. self-emptying).

There, I think, on balance that's what I wanted to say. Now, to watch another episode of Gilligan's Island and laugh at people being stranded on a desert island because they all fall prey to their particular sin.

*Just for the record, this isn't true, about the British generally or about the well-educated ones. Trust me on this, I married one.
**Dad had a Chevelle, but I don't remember what year. Maybe 1974. He also had a Buick Grand National.
***I'm making this up, really, I haven't the slightest idea what any of this means. The words are in the Wikipedia article on the Chevelle.


  1. I'm always appalled by this accusation. It's one thing to throw around "big words" in everyday conversation, solely to impress (depress?) others. It's entirely another to use vocabulary appropriate to a subject.

    Ultimately, though, it just demonstrates their ignorance - not that they don't know what "exegesis" means, but that they refuse to learn. Having been thrown into a school where I didn't understand a word anyone said, I learned quickly to ask, even if I felt dumb doing so.

    I think people are just too self-absorbed. They think too much of themselves to learn more (because doing so would be to admit that they aren't all they thought they were). In the end, they remain static. It's the ultimate symptom of our fallenness.



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