I devised my favorite teaching exercise just after the US went back to war in Iraq, taking my inspiration from a seemingly unlikely source: President George W. Bush. Though the forty-third president had a sometimes-tenuous command of words, he surrounded himself with masters of manipulating language. Remember when we used to call climate change global warming? Yeah, I do, too. That shift in nomenclature happened during Bush 2’s administration. It was a brilliant, though disturbing choice. Warming is a kind of change, so that much is accurate. And change is one of the few constants in our life, so naturally the climate will go through it, too, right? Maybe even all by itself. But as the science has made clear, the planet is warming at an alarming rate because of humans, particularly because we consume too much, especially fossil fuels. By stripping away the old label’s specificity, the new one adds the illusion of wiggle room to discussions about the environment—if it was going to change anyway, perhaps it’s still okay to drill, baby, drill. (It’s not okay. It’s so far from okay.)
Although I did point out this label shift to my students, the example that inspired my lesson plan works in the other direction, moving from abstract to specific. For months leading up to the war, we heard about weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration relied on these weapons’ putative existence to justify beginning a war that many of us believed was unjust. Every day we heard that phrase, often multiple times. But on the eve of that war, Bush claimed in his speech to the nation that the Iraqis had weapons of mass murder. It’s the only moment from that speech that I remember because it arrested me. I was caught between horror for the impending war and admiration for the rhetorical prowess of 43’s staff. It’s just one word, but it carries so much weight, and this moment offered a perfect example of diction’s power. So I asked my students to bring dictionaries to the next class where I wrote the two words—destruction, murder—on the board. After we listed the definitions beneath the words, I explained their context and we discussed the difference. I asked them why the President might change a phrase that had been in the public consciousness for so long, and my students saw how this rhetorical shift from an abstract idea to a concrete image appeared to heighten the threat that Saddam Hussein posed to the world, thus making the war appear necessary.
In both of these examples the more specific a word’s meaning, the more weight it carries. Change can happen in many directions; warming is a particular kind of change. Destruction has many targets; murder is the intentional destruction of a human life by another human. All writers have seen advice about using fewer words that do more work to add power to their writing. Instead of “she ran quickly,” we could write “she raced,” “she sped,” fled, flew. All those words contain the notion of “running quickly,” but they also add a specific flavor to that quickness; they all do extra work. This is one of my favorite parts of writing—choosing my words carefully.
For eight years after President Bush left office, we had an articulate, eloquent president in Barack Obama, a man who chooses his words carefully. But now we have a president who proves his disdain for words and meaning every day. When he speaks, many of his words float, unanchored by meaning. The rest of his administration operates in much the same way. These are the people for whom news is fake and facts are alternative. Nouns become verbs—how does one “architect her life?” And when we hear the words “Believe me” coming from 45’s mouth, we’re wise to do just the opposite. Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Trump prefers to improvise rather than rely upon prepared remarks. And in his improvisations he returns to the same words over and over: huge, tremendous, and of course, great. While huge and tremendous offer more specific meanings, great requires context. It can mean big, important, remarkable, above average; it can have both positive and negative connotations depending on the words around it: a great nation. A great idiot. It is a word, like this presidency, without much weight.
And then there is the word that so many pundits long to apply to the Oval Office’s current occupant, if for no other reason than to pretend that there is something normal about this president. So many people still look for a reason to call Donald J. Trump presidential. But in order to do that, we’d have to strip that word of all its weight and let it float as meaningless as every other Trumpian utterance. There are plenty of more accurate adjectives to apply to the forty-fifth president, adjectives that carry all the weight they need to describe him.