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With twice as many words why do we sound only half as smart?

Published: Monday, April 8, 2013 11:20 a.m. CDT

In the days of our Founding Fathers, the working vocabulary of the English language was approximately 25,000 words. Today, the English language is estimated to contain more than 1 million.

Depending on which estimate you believe, it’s growing by as many as 25,000 new words — every year.

Yet, we’re completely flummoxed when it comes to the writings of our nation’s Founding Fathers. Take, for instance, President George Washington’s first inaugural address. Here’s just a brief snippet that is among my favorite parts:

When I was first honoured with a call into the Service of my Country, then on the eve of an arduous struggle for its liberties, the light in which I contemplated my duty required that I should renounce every pecuniary compensation.

From this resolution I have in no instance departed. And being still under the impressions which produced it, I must decline as inapplicable to myself, any share in the personal emoluments, which may be indispensably included in a permanent provision for the Executive Department; and must accordingly pray that the pecuniary estimates for the Station in which I am placed, may, during my continuance in it, be limited to such actual expenditures as the public good may be thought to require.

Pecuniary? Emoluments? If only you could see my computer screen right now… it hasn’t had this many green and red lines since … well, ever.

I couldn’t write like that — let alone read it eloquently to a group of the nation’s most powerful political leaders — if my life depended upon it. Yet, that was common speech for the moderately educated of the day.

Keep in mind we didn’t have public education, and college was reserved for the truly elite of the world.

So, how do we teach our children, and their children, about the founding principles of our nation when we ourselves have a great deal of difficulty understanding the words they wrote and spoke? And, if we “dumb it down” to the sixth-grade reading level I’m currently supposed to be writing at, won’t there be something important lost in the translation?

Those might seem like trivial questions, but when our nation finds itself at such an important crossroads, isn’t the true meaning of their words vitally important? For instance, does “pursuit of Happiness” mean “doing what’s good in the sight of God,” or “doing what feels good to me”?

I’m sure there are many of you who think perhaps this is some kind of backhanded political statement, but I’m speaking purely as someone who has a vested interest in the English language — and the future of our country. I think a lot of agreement could be struck in the political realm if we actually understood the full and complete meaning of the words Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and the like were using 226 years ago.

I know it’s important that our children learn how to function in the reality of today, with an ability to prepare themselves for the unknown of tomorrow. But, I also think it should be important to understand the history of yesterday.

Because those who fail to learn from it are doomed to repeat it.

• • •

If you’re reading this, thank a teacher. If you’re reading it in English, thank a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.

• • •

Editor Bob Eschliman may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 423, or at beschliman@newtondailynews.com via email. He hosts “office hours” 7 to 8 a.m. every Thursday at the Newton Hy-Vee cafeteria.

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