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Why Can’t the Americans?

November 30, 2000

Malcolm Bradbury died the other day, aged 68. Actually, he was Sir Malcolm. A knight. I didn’t know that. I knew almost nothing about him, except that I liked him.

I liked him for one sentence I came across in a collection of modern quotations: “It had always seemed to Louis that a fundamental desire to take postal courses was being sublimated by other people into sexual activity.” A man who could write that line was worth knowing. It appeared in a book with the inspired title Eating People Is Wrong — a sentiment I heartily endorse and can only admire him for putting into words.

He also wrote: “I like the English. They have the most rigid code of immorality in the world.” And this: “You Liberals think that goats are just sheep from broken homes.” Don’t you love him already?

The English speak their language so well. We Americans borrow it and mess it up. We don’t know how to have fun with it. We think polish is phony; it embarrasses us. For them polish is joy. We allow them to practice it, because it’s their way; but we frown on it amongst ourselves.

What could be more English than Gilbert and Sullivan? Gilbert’s deadly wit could take the form of a one-sentence letter of complaint to a railway company: “Sir, Sunday morning, though recurring at regular and well foreseen intervals, always seems to take this railway by surprise.” No volume of yelling could make the point so well.

Even English politicians can be witty. When the Earl of Sandwich predicted that John Wilkes would die “either on the gallows or of a loathesome disease,” Wilkes instantly retorted: “That depends, my lord, whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.” Another politician said of an opponent that he “has sat on the fence so long that the iron has entered his soul.” Yet another quipped: “The honorable gentleman is indebted to his memory for his jests, and to his imagination for his facts.”

And of course Winston Churchill was renowned for his merciless epigrams. He said of Ramsay MacDonald: “We know that he has, more than any other man, the gift of compressing the largest amount of words into the smallest amount of thought.” Of Clement Atlee: “He is a sheep in wolf’s clothing.” He also called Atlee “a modest little man with much to be modest about.”

F.E. Smith, a lawyer, was once scolded by a judge: “I have read your case, Mr. Smith, and I am no wiser now than I was when I started.” Smith replied politely: “Possibly not, my lord, but far better informed.”

Why hasn’t this country, which is not totally devoid of intelligence and humor, cultivated wit as the English have? Ordinarily, we Americans prize efficiency, and wit might be defined as efficiency of expression. But we use the English language very inefficiently, wasting huge quantities of words.

[Breaker quote: What the 
English can teach us about English]Our politicians are among the worst speakers of English on either side of the Atlantic. Or Pacific, for that matter. Here is a sentence Al Gore, alleged intellectual, spoke the other day: “In many ways, the act of voting and having that vote counted is more important than who wins the majority of the votes that are cast, because whoever wins, the victor will know that the American people have spoken with a voice made mighty by the whole of its integrity.” As for George W. Bush, even the attempt to utter a simple sentence defeats him: “I know how hard it is to put food on your family.”

Such verbal clumsiness is unworthy of any human being, let alone those who are supposed to be exemplary leaders. What makes it really appalling is that Gore went to Harvard and Bush to Yale. Maybe they don’t teach remedial English in the Ivy League.

The habit of witty expression adds an element of fun to English public life. American politics is distinguished by the sheer dreary banality of its language. Our politicians feel no obligation to be succinct, let alone delightful, in speech.

Joseph Sobran

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