Thursday, February 26, 2009

Choosing Your Words Classically

Words are the foundation of any subject. As you move from grammar to rhetoric in the classical model, you become even more aware of the impact of word choice.

This week, our new president gave his first address to a joint session of Congress. 

As someone with a deep interest in rhetoric, I look at these speeches, and I ask, "What slogan are the speechwriters hoping will make headlines?" "Why choose the word 'crisis' and not 'challenge'?" and "What does the word 'we' or a colloquialism do to the audience?"

Today, I was excited to find a website called Speech Wars. The site allows you to search how often a given word has been used in presidential speeches (inaugural addresses and state of the union speeches) all the way back to 1790. 

Did you know...?
  • 'Government' has been used 7,036 times. It was in much higher demand in the 1800s, peaked around 1945, and then again around 1985. Since then, presidents are much less likely to use the word. 
  • 'Freedom' rose after 1942, went through a low point in the 70s, then swooped in the 1980s and again in the 2000s. Total: 695 usages.
  • The word 'job' was not used at all before 1900, and only five times before 1940.
  • 'Homeschool'? Never. 'Parent'? 29 times. 'School'? 252 times. 'Education'? 544 times.
  • 'Genocide' has been mentioned only three times: 1950, 2006, and 2008.
  • 'Abortion'? Five times. Not once since 1988.
  • 'Consumerism'? Zero.
  • Teddy Roosevelt used 'wrong,' 'moral,' and 'sin' more times than any other president. 'Sin' has not been mentioned since 1911.
Tells us something about our culture, doesn't it?

Each one of us is a rhetorician: a parent explaining faith to a child, a teacher guiding discussion of a controversial topic, a writer blogging about education, or a student voicing a contrary opinion in a class. 

I don't know about you, but sometimes I need a reminder that the words I choose to use, and not use, make a difference, whether I have an audience of a million or one. 

Because everyday events can be classical opportunities too... 


dongdong said...

great point!

Jen - Balancing Beauty and Bedlam said...

off to check this site - what a great resource.