Last month, responding to aspersions regarding his intelligence in Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury, Donald Trump sent out a series of tweets, concluding:
“Actually,” they were a couple of Trump’s better written tweets, with no spelling errors, a sophisticated use of commas, and only one (each) exclamation point and puzzlingly capitalized word (“Star”). Indeed, one suspects they were written, or at least edited, by a staffer -- probably a millennial, in view of the use of genius as an adjective and like as, like, a discourse marker.
I’ll put aside the larger issue of Trump’s intelligence. But a new data analysis casts serious doubt on the last sentence in a claim he made during his campaign: “I went to an Ivy League school. I’m very highly educated. I know words, I have the best words.” To do the study, Bill Frischling, CEO of a company that has compiled and made searchable every word spoken by Donald J. Trump, took utterances made during interviews, press conferences, or political debates by every president back to Hoover, and comparatively crunched. Trump was at the bottom on every measure, including number of unique words in a same-size sample: he used 2,605, while the biggest active vocabulary belonged to his predecessor, Barack Obama, with 3,869 different words.
As for complexity, Trump’s words are like his fingers: short. He averages 1.33 syllables per word, while the leader, Herbert Hoover, averaged 1.57. Finally, on the Flesch-Kincaid scale, Trump’s vocabulary turned out to be on a fourth-grade level; the standard bearer, at 11th-grade level, was Hoover, clearly a Poindexter among presidents.
But if Trump doesn’t have much of a vocabulary himself, he has inspired others to lexicographically excel, especially in producing insults on an almost Shakespearean level. The first such forays were from Britain. During the campaign, after Trump spoke out against Brexit, a Labor MP called him a “wazzock.” And when he wrongly insinuated that Scotland had voted in favor of leaving the European Union, another Briton tweeted:
More recently, Trump’s supporters have jumped in. After Mayor Sadiq Khan of London criticized Trump, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson tweeted, “We will not allow US-UK relations to be endangered by some puffed up pompous popinjay in City Hall.”
On this side of the Atlantic, did Merriam-Webster have Trump in mind when it reported restoring to its Collegiate Dictionary “snollygoster,” a word originating in the 19th-century American South and meaning “a shrewd and unprincipled person, and especially an unprincipled politician”? The word subsequently fell out of favor till 1952, when Harry Truman, in an apparently rare display of polysyllables, called Republicans snollygosters and expressed a wish that they “would read the New Testament and perform accordingly.” Snollygoster disappeared again until, according to M-W, “it was almost single-handedly revived by New York Times ‘On Language’ columnist William Safire.”
Speaking of Safire, he deserves his own chapter in the annals of creative calumny. My alliteration is intentional, for, along with obscure diction, this was Safire’s trademark as a speechwriter for Richard Nixon’s first vice president, Spiro Agnew. In 1970, Agnew recited Safire’s words: “In the United States today, we have more than our share of nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4-H club -- the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” Earlier, Safire/Agnew had blasted critics of the administration as “an effete corps of impudent snobs.”
Meanwhile, the obloquy renaissance continues. A few days ago, the actor Michael McKean tweeted:
His followers warmed to the theme, averring that our halls of powers also contain quislings, fopdoodles, throttlebottoms, scalliwags, lickspittles, blackguards, “mountebanks who I believe have been dabbling in laudanum,” ultramaroons, gulla-bulls, and nin-cow-poops (the last three all come from a 1938 Bugs Bunny cartoon).
The best words, indeed.