David Orr’s “Verbicide”

02/10/2010 § 1 Comment

I stumbled across this essay when working on the glossary page. I posted it on Bookface, and now I’m sharing it here. To say the least, it’s an important read.

OCTOBER 25, 2000–He entered my office for advice as a freshman advisee sporting nearly perfect SAT scores and an impeccable academic record—by all accounts a young man of considerable promise. During a 20-minute conversation about his academic future, however, he displayed a vocabulary that consisted mostly of two words: “cool” and “really.” Almost 800 SAT points hitched to each word. To be fair, he could use them interchangeably as “really cool” or “cool . . . really!” He could also use them singly. When he was a student in a subsequent class, I later confirmed that my first impression of the young scholar was largely accurate and that his vocabulary, and presumably his mind, consisted predominantly of words and images derived from overexposure to television and the new jargon of computer-speak.

He is no aberration, but an example of a larger problem, not of illiteracy but of diminished literacy in a culture that often sees little reason to use words carefully, however abundantly. Increasingly, student papers from otherwise very good students have whole paragraphs that sound like advertising copy. Whether students are talking or writing, a growing number have a tenuous grasp on a declining vocabulary. Excise “uh . . .like . . .uh” from most teenage conversations, and the effect is like sticking a pin into a balloon.

In the past 50 years, by one reckoning, the working vocabulary of the average 14 year-old has declined from some 25,000 words to 10,000 words. This is not merely a decline in numbers of words but in the capacity to think. It also signifies that there has been a steep decline in the number of things that an adolescent needs to know and to name in order to get by in an increasingly homogenized and urbanized consumer society. This is a national tragedy virtually unnoticed in the media. It is no mere coincidence that in roughly the same half century the average person has come to recognize over 1000 corporate logos, but can now recognize fewer than 10 plants and animals native to his or her locality.

The rest of the essay, after the jump to Oberlin Online.

Tomorrow or Friday, I’ll be posting pictures from tonight’s Girls concert at the Bluebird, as long as I get into the box-office line early enough. Opening for Girls are The Magic Kids and The Smith Westerns.

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§ One Response to David Orr’s “Verbicide”

  • Kyle H. says:

    This is a really good post Nate, I’ve heard a great deal about our declining local knowledge, but not so much about our vocabulary and ability to think in a more general sense.

    Also I suggest you look into Noam Chomsky’s writings on Linguistics and The Manufacturing of Consent, somewhat along the same topic and very persuasive and thought provoking.

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