Because any modern language is functionally an open-ended system–there are nearly infinite ways to mix words to convey meaning–it’s remarkable that we can (mostly) express what we mean.
We’ve all seen videos of planes landing on a windy runway: Seemingly down. . . then not quite down. . . veering to the right and then the left. . . and finally down. The phrase “sticking the landing” is common to both pilots and gymnasts. Both want to land in the right spot. Verbalizing thoughts on the fly is a cognitive version of the kind of precarious act. Successfully explaining ourselves in the space of mere seconds is a marvel of mind-body coordination. Every word reflects a choice. Do we go for a literal description, or one that is metaphoric? Should our words be a first person report, an act of truth telling? How much detail is enough? And will a colorful word quickly plucked out of the air give the wrong impression?
Especially in front of others we are conscious that the laydown of language that is still to come needs a attention. We pre-verbalize. And most of us are remarkably good at what then follows most of the time.
To sense this fluency-on-the-fly watch a four or five year old explain themselves. We can almost see their little brains putting it all together. Eyes get wide and their focus becomes intense as they search for the right combinations of words, grammar and syntax. It’s always a treat to see grandkids find pathways for their ideas.
Kids acquire this capacity at the speed of a SpaceX rocket. Language is a culture’s gift to it’s young. But fluency itself is a life-long quest, mixing memory and experience with synergies that grow with larger vocabularies and refined understandings of how to use them.
Some of this prowess begins to ebb in old age. And some among us never fully master the task of linking impulses to coherent expressions. Consider, for example, the rhetoric of a few presidents. George W. Bush was known for coming close to what he wanted to express, sometimes settling on phrasing or dependent clauses that trailed some loose ends. As he knew, the results could be funny. Here’s a few Bushisms from their official custodian, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg:
1. "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."—Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2004 2. "I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family."—Greater Nashua, N.H., Chamber of Commerce, Jan. 27, 2000 3. "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?"—Florence, S.C., Jan. 11, 20004. 4."Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB/GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across the country."—Poplar Bluff, Mo., Sept. 6, 2004
“Sticking the landing” can be hard for all of us. Using the wrong acronym, I once explained to students that “unexploded IUD’s” were a particular problem in places like Afghanistan. They humored me by not bursting out in laughter.
What is interesting about presidents is that they leave a clearer record of their rhetorical misdeeds. Listen to a collection of Trump teleprompter gaffes that he tries to correct by doing what amounts to some freelance riffing after the wrong word has been said. He usually works sideways to get back up to the term he intended to use, like a jazz musician trying to turn a wrong note into a useful improvisation.
Donald Trumps teleprompter trick or is it a tic
President Obama was more conscious of word choice. He often spoke like an academic, sometimes using tedious pauses while he searched his brain for the phrase or word. To achieve this kind of fluency, Obama had to speak more slowly than the human norm of about 200 words a minute. He gave up a certain glibness for the advantages of more precision. It’s now apparent that some of us miss the rhetoric of such a laser mind. Others relish the circus of visceral responses that now issue from the West Wing.
Even so, let’s not let the impurity of political rhetoric taint what remains a miraculous capability spread far and wide across the species.