Sunday, November 21, 2010

Continued Reverberation of Obama’s Use of “Shellacking”—An Illustration of the Power of the Spoken Word

It’s nearly three weeks since the Nov. 2 mid-term election. Yet, Obama’s word “shellacking,” which he used during a press conference the following day to describe the reverses he and the Democratic Party suffered, continues to resound. There is not a day when I don’t hear or see that word quoted in a news report, magazine article, or a current affairs discussion in the media. It proves something that I have been telling my audiences and clients for over two decades: A single word that is out-of-the-ordinary and vivid can help make a presentation indelible.

Perhaps the finest example of a fresh, strong, evocative word giving immortality to a speech or other communication is FDR’s “infamy” speech. Here is what I say about that iconic speech in the opening paragraph of my essay “Building a Wide and Vivid Vocabulary—Why Bother?” in my book "The Articulate Professional": On each anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, we Americans get to hear, in the voice of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the opening words from a speech he delivered to Congress one day after the Japanese attack: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941--a date which will live in infamy--the United States was . . .” Clearly, it is the word “infamy” that endows that line with so much impact and firmness. What if FDR had stuck with his original draft, worded “…a date which will live in world history…” Would the opening line of that speech still be so resonant and a fixture of American history, replayed in news programs and documentaries year after year, more than six decades later? Hardly!

A relatively recent example of a prominent American’s imaginative words becoming airborne and thus entering the lexicon: then-Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s “irrational exuberance,” uttered during a speech in the 1990s, which were repeatedly quoted by talking heads, analysts, and others during the recent financial crisis.

Having made my case for why it pays to enrich one's command of the language, I hope you will be a frequent visitor to my free vocabulary enhancement feature Words of the Month which profiles words used conversationally by America’s most articulate.

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