Interview

With newsman and author Edwin Newman

October 31 1977
Interview

With newsman and author Edwin Newman

October 31 1977

With newsman and author Edwin Newman

Interview

To Edwin Newman, nothing so much epitomizes the decline in standards of spoken English as the ever more pervasive retreat to "you know" and "I mean.”

It distresses him that so many people "do not have the resources with which to express themselves,” and improving the way the language is spoken is Newman’s crusade. The 58-year-old New York City native, a news commentator on NBC, is the author of two widely read books on English usage, Strictly Speaking and A Civil Tongue, and is in constant demand as a speaker. Free-lance writer David Woods interviewed Newman tor Maclean's in his small, booklined office in Rockefeller Centre, NBC’S New York headquarters.

Maclean’s: The subtitle of your first book Strickly Speaking was Will America Be The Death Of English? Do you think it will?

Newman: I don’t think we’ll be the death of English. 1 think English will live as long as it goes on being used. That was perhaps a bit of poetic license, perhaps I should say prosaic license. What 1 think is happening to the language in this country and, to the extent that 1 know about these things, in Canada and, incidentally, in Britain, is that it is being made a boneless language, a 5 pompous language, a gassy language. All f the flavor and the color arc being taken % from it, it seems to me. The flavor and color js are being taken away by sociologists, other ç social scientists, lawyers, physicians, gov11 ernment people and, for that matter, journalists because there’s an extraordinary desire on the part of journalists to use the same pompous language that they hear. Maclean’s: Why do people insist on using expressions these days like “labor force participation ” when they mean work; or “total learning facility” when they mean school? Is it self-importance?

Newman: It is certainly self-importance and it is an attempt to suggest that what they are doing is somehow technical in the sense that it requires special training. Now if you can make people believe that what you’re doing is somehow beyond their ability to understand, nobody is going to challenge what you’re doing and you will go on getting money with which to do it. You have people who do not want to say that they run a jail because there’s no esteem that goes with running a jail. It seems to me that this is quite wrong. This is a serious matter. There’s nothing dishonorable about running a jail if you run the jail well and if it’s a reasonably humane, place doing its job. I have heard, for in-

stance, of gravediggers in at least one cemetery who were called interment engineers. And there’s nothing wrong with being a gravedigger. I don’t happen to be one and I know that I make more money than gravediggers do but I think that we ought to un-

I fhink in general that Canadians are kinder to English than Americans are

derstand that it’s a necessary job. It is unfortunate that people think that they have to dress up the names of their jobs. Maclean’s: Where does it all start? Are the schools failing to teach kids the rules of language? Are adults reading less? Has television made us lazy about conversation and communication?

Newman: In many cases it is a lack of vocabulary. There are a great many people who simply do not have the resources with which to express themselves. That is why they are constantly saying “you know” and “I mean.” It is also why certain phrases have been picked up so widely and have become fad phrases, especially phrases heard on television. In entertainment pro-

grams everybody seems to want to use them, including people for whom they are quite inappropriate. People use these because they are not capable of expressing themselves. So you get a phrase like “just for openers” and “what have you done for me lately?” and that kind of thing when people ought to be able to formulate their own ideas and give voice to them. It starts—and maybe this is a bit of circular reasoning—but it starts with the idea that language doesn’t matter and that’s an idea that has unfortunately caught on. It’s caught on for a number of reasons: one is the popularity of the McLuhan view of language. (Although McLuhan’s use of language is frequently imaginative and occasionally opaque as well and he can be very funny.) There are many people who believe that you don’t have to communicate with language any longer. You can use pictures. You can use music. You can use demonstrations. You use obscenity. In my view this is a mistake. Language is the most expressive and subtle instrument of communication that exists, and no doubt ever has existed. Then you have what one may call “the larding of the language with jargon” which begins, I think, with social scientists who are trying to show that they are doing something scientific and somehow comparable to what is being done in the physical sciences—who use language to make what they do sound abstruse, recondite, beyond the grasp of ordinary people without special training.

Maclean’s: But don’t you think that the weatherman who talks about “a shower situation ” is really trying to inject some life into the language?

Newman: No, I think the weather forecaster who talks about shower activity is trying to do what I’ve already referred to, he’s trying to make what he does sound technical. He doesn’t want to say showers or rain, he says shower activity. It sounds better to him .. .

Maclean’s: Are sociologists among the chief villians in the attack on language? Or are they just the originators of jargon most people seem quite willing to adopt quite readily?

Newman: I think it’s the second explanation. The word “parameters,” for example. Parameters as far as I know came from space talk. And there are fields in which “parameters” is an entirely proper word, an entirely appropriate word. In architecture, mathematics and many other fields, parameters can fairly be used and no doubt it can be used in space technology and science. But what happened was that

journalists picked it up and misused it and from that point it became extremely popular and it spread into economics. It spread into all or any number of the social sciences and it is a word that is marvelously suited to people who want to be pompous. They love it without knowing what it means, incidentally, 99% of them. And it’s a difficult word to understand. It’s a difficult concept—which incidentally is another word much beloved. Parameters rolls off the tongue.

Maclean’s: Why do you suppose this use of jargon is particularly frequent among the social sciences?

Newman: Well I think, to follow through on what I was saying before, the less substance there is in what is being proposed and what is being put forward and the argument that is being made, the more it will be wrapped, the more it will be packed in batting of some kind. It will be padded. And in the social sciences, this goes farther than it does in any other field. Let’s take the description of murder and assault as escalated into personal altercations. Let us take the description of a job, a part-time job for a student, as an on-site structured experience. For them to use a term like job, part-time job, would seem beneath their dignity. It does not consort with a doctoral degree.

Maclean’s: And the military are not very far behind.

Newman: What you say is true. The military are not far behind, and businessmen are not far behind. But they are behind because they are imitating what they hear— from people in the field of education in particular. For example, I was sent a title of a doctoral thesis in Chicago—and this was the title: A Descriptive Exploratory Analysis Of Some Issues And Criteria In Reference To Measurement With Possible Application To A Diagnostic Prescriptive System For Developing Measurement Competency For Prospective Teachers.

Maclean’s: That’s almost a thesis itself Mr. Newman I would like to turn to medicine. I’ve heard physicians talk about being “in solo practice on their own, ” and “performing postmortems on dead people, ” and you’ve written about them calling for “input from the patient’s own value system” when they mean does the patient want the treatment or not. Are euphemisms and hedging a kindness in a doctor-patient relationship? Newman: I think that there are times when a certain vagueness or ambiguity of speech is maybe kind and that is something that any physician would have to judge for himself. But I think in general that isn’t the problem. The problem is the desire to again sound important and also develop your own jargon so that other people don’t know what you’re talking about. Maclean’s: It’s pulling the wool over people’s eyes.

Newman: Yes, that’s the purpose of any jargon. Somebody just sent me an example of a Johns Hopkins psychologist who spoke of somebody who had been “hys-

terectomized and ovariectomized.” Now why not say removed the organs in question? But the suffix “ized” is tremendously popular. I’ve just been sent one about a food systems manager in a company in the Middle West. A registered dietician demonstrated how to rethermolize frozen piates in a microwave oven. That is heat them.

Maclean’s: Willard Estey I Supreme Court Justice] speaking at a medical meeting, said that MDS should abandon Greek in much the same way as he says lawyers are abandoning Latin. Do you think yourself that MDS will help us by saying for example “brain swelling” instead of encephalitis?

Newman: 1 think that they would be well

Almost nobody in the United States wants to be seen to be stopping to think

advised to give up that language. It is used as a fence to keep other people outside and respectful. And as I’ve also said it makes it too much struggle for the people who are outside to find out what’s going on inside. But I don’t think that physicians ought to be singled out in this respect. They’re not the only people who use language this way. But I think they could help all of us to understand much more of what is going on. Now there is a larger question here, and that is how far physicians in general want to be controlled, overseen, judged, inspected, examined by people who are not in the profession. And this has to do not

only with language but with the entire organization of control of medical care. Maclean’s: But you know there’s another aspect of physicians’ language and that is we are quite happy, the majority of us, to adopt the jargon of medicine.

Newman: I’m sure that’s true. I’m also certain that anybody who hears the word “encephalitis” applied to anyone he knows will surely look it up. You can’t go around being happy because you’ve been told that some member of your family has encephalitis. You’re going to find out what it is. You don’t go around saying, “well it’s only encephalitis—it isn’t as though his brain was swelling.” I suppose that if you’re going to have an illness you want it to be a fairly glamorous one, shall we say. Maclean’s: Let’s get away from physicians for a moment and on to this point. You’ve pointed out in A Civil Tongue that the British have, as do the Americans, later confrontations, satisfying targets, and leisure complexes. Do you think England is contributing to the death of English or do you feel that the English are still the custodians of our language?

Newman: No, I think the British are doing what they can to ruin British English. They’re eager to adopt whatever Americans use in the way of English. They love the catchphrases. They don’t have the resources to devote to it that we do, but they love it nonetheless. The idea of the family as a micro-cluster of structured role expectations comes from British sociologists. One reason they do it is. of course, because the social sciences are extremely popular there: another reason they do it is they adopt American political methods to whatever extent their finances permit them.

Maclean’s: Canada, as you know, is supposedly a bilingual country. Even so, the expression “fluently bilingual” is often heard as if one could be unfluently bilingual. But as far as spoken English is concerned, do you yourself notice any difference in the way Canadians handle our language?

Newman: Yes, I do notice some difference. I think in general Canadians are kinder to English than Americans are. 1 think that maybe there is some desire on the part of many Canadians to resist American influence. Now it’s a very difficult influence to resist, obviously, given the size of the United States population and economy and the size of the Canadian population and economy. But there are Canadians who want to turn out to be Canadians and not sound like Americans—yes, I suppose it’s true to name the French Canadians, but what do you call the others? You don’t call them British Canadians. You call them Canadians. Maclean’s: Anglophones and franco-

phones are the subsequent expressions. Newman: Incidentally that’s a term that one never hears in the United States. But I notice that in Canada, certainly among some Canadians, the ones I meet are generally government people, there is a cer-

tain grace, a certain dignity, a certain formality, maybe that’s a better way to put it, but a welcome formality I think. They’re not using as many of the fad-phrases as we are. And I think you probably have not had the decline of education that we have had. Maclean’s: Do you think that this has something to do with manners, where one makes one's point and gets out of it and develops a dialogue rather than a lengthy monologue?

Newman: I don’t know Canada very well. I don’t know what it is traceable to. What I think is an influence in the United States and may not be an influence in Canada is the notion that if you ever pause to take thought, if you are silent for a few moments, that that appears to reflect on you. Nobody in the United States, or almost nobody in the United States, wants to be seen to be stopping to think. Now where did this idea come from? I suspect that it came from radio in which there is almost never a moment of silence because the time is thought to be valuable so every second and every split second is filled. And if you consider the influence of the discjockey in this connection you will see what I mean. The discjockey considers that he or she is doing his or her job by speaking without cease— by turning out a stream of sound. And this has become a fashion in the United States. As they say, people are embarrassed. That’s why we have so many fad-phrases because if you stop talking you will be thought to have nothing to say.

Maclean’s: Is improving the way we speak a crusade for you and do you feel that you are winning it?

Newman: To a degree it’s a crusade. It’s not a full-time crusade, of course, since I am employed by NBC. I do my best to speak well and write well generally, and I suppose I’m having some influence. But it has become a crusade in a sense because I have become associated with this cause in the press and I suppose in the popular mind. It’s a very comfortable position and I’m very happy to have it. People write to me and people send in material and ask me to write another book and that kind of thing. And I’m invited to speak somewhere virtually every day. But am I winning it, or are we winning it? No, I don’t think we’re winning it. I do believe that we’re making progress. I think one can see encouraging signs. One can see educators who are now understanding that they are or have been turning out graduates who don’t write well, speak well, read well, spell well, or punctuate well, and in many cases can’t deal with simple forms. We have the United States Navy saying that it cannot get enough recruits who understand English well enough to use the manual that navy people must use to operate the equipment. But we have, as I say, many educators and others insisting that English be taught and be taught better than it has been and who are even insisting that the teachers be taught. We have a President who says that he wants regulations in the government to

be written in plain English, and the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development has said that she doesn’t want any more jargon in her department. So yes, I’m reasonably encouraged.

Maclean’s: Do you think that, as we come out of the Nixon era with all of that doubletalk, there might be some hope in the political arena too?

Newman: I believe that Watergate had a

Watergate and Vietnam demonstrated how language could be used to distort facts

great effect in this connection as I believe Vietnam did. I believe that people were able to see how language could be used to distort facts.

Maclean’s: This is a personal question. What got you interested in language? Newman: Obviously language is something that I’ve been interested in for a very long time. But there were one or two things that happened to me as a correspondent that helped to lead me into this. One was that I found myself using inflated language which gave my story qualities that in fact it did not have. We’d talk about President Johnson’s Great Society program. That’s a form of shorthand, of course. Everybody understands that. But if you use it and go on using it you make people believe that there’s some substance in it. I felt the same way about President Kennedy’s much ad-

vertised Grand Design, a partnership between Western Europe and the United States and Canada. We would use the term Grand Design as though there was one when there wasn’t. And I was being guilty of these things. I would talk, when I was a Paris correspondent, about something called the multilateral nuclear force which was a naval force that was to have nuclear weapons and was to come under joint command of all the NATO countries or many of them. And I used to do broadcasts about that day after day, and one morning I woke up and said I’m not going to do any more broadcasting about it. There’s nothing in it. And the language had a great deal to do with it.

Maclean’s: Do you think there is any danger that the pendulum could swing the other way and we could have a nation of pedants on our hands?

Newman: No, I have no fear about that, at any rate in the United States, because there’s much too much disrespectfulness at large in this country. I think if that happened we might see a revival of that great American institution which I miss—the wisecrack. The wisecrack probably flourishes when you’ve got this sort of thing going or some part of it going. We haven’t had it much lately.

Maclean’s: They have become too damned intense.

Newman: I would like people to understand that there is a tremendous amount of fun to be had from language.

Maclean’s: Even the wisecracks that mangle the language are forgivable, “Include me out...”

Newman: A marvelous phrase. Maclean’s: You said that we have no possession more valuable than language. How can we ensure that we hang on to that possession and respect it the way we ought to? Newman: I certainly don’t think that we ought to have an Academy. We don’t need anybody handing down orders that nobody is going to obey in any case. I think the first thing to do is to govern yourself to maintain standards that you respect and, to the extent that you can, impose those standards on other people. Beyond that I think it’s possible to wage a kind of guerrilla warfare and in this I think the principal weapon must be ridicule. I think that when people are confronted with nonsensical language they ought, if they feel safe in doing so, to say so. And if they receive communications from corporations and universities that they find unintelligible, they ought to send them back and say what does this mean? But the first thing, as I say, is to impose acceptable standards on yourself. And I think that you will then find that you have more influence than you expected. I also believe that there is at the moment a greater awareness of the necessity of preserving the English language than there has ever been before. I find more articles about it, more books about it, more editorials about it. I’m encouraged, f?