When did the term “rhetoric” become an insult?
When did “artfully crafted speech” become a buzz word for irrelevant, useless and unnecessary speech; as in “That’s just rhetoric”?
The answer, according to author John McWhorter in his book, “Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care” is 1965, the year American troops were deployed to Vietnam, and when trust in government – and oratory – began its “downward spiral”
McWhorter, a linguistics professor at UC Berkeley says the ’60s changed not only American culture but also how we communicate.
Political speech became manipulative, and formality became old fashioned and insincere. This attitude, McWhorter says, changed the way we use our language.
The purest form of human communication is oral , which is always changing, but Americans in the `”post-oratorical America” no longer speak and write formally and decoratively as past centuries. At the time of the Civil War, he says, even the least educated teenage soldiers wrote letters or diaries and penning what we would consider almost poetry. McWhorter quotes a love letter from a 19-year-old store clerk in the 1830’s:
“At best we live but one little hour, strut at our own conceit, and die.”
Can you imagine an 18 year old sending that kind of prose in an e-mail today?
McWhorter wonders “What gave Americans a tacit sense that [using] the full resources of our native language is tacky? The result is a dislike of formality, but also muddled public discourse, impeding the development of precise thinking.”
But McWhorter also says, “ornate English could also be a sophisticated way to say nothing at all”. He suggests that English could have gone the way of good cooking, meaning “we can appreciate it, without always practicing it”.