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November 1, 2014

Methinks the Congressman Doth Protest Too Much

Last week, the Sunlight Foundation released a report that declared: Congress is speaking dumber these days. This week, Rep. Mike Quigley decided that he wasn’t going to take it. No, he wasn’t going to take it. He wasn’t going to take it anymore.

The Illinois Democrat inserted a speech into the May 30 Congressional Record wherein he uses “words, with syllables” to communicate his outrage.

“Mr. Speaker, I rise, as doth the golden orb pulled across the sky each day by the chariot of Apollo, to decry an ignominy perpetuated on this Body by the captious Sunlight Foundation,” he began. “Mr. Speaker, the Sunlight Foundation says we talk dumb. How can the House of Lincoln, Jefferson and Wilbur Mills suffer such excoriation?

“I deem the Sunlight Foundation’s findings fatuous. There has been no deliquescence of Congressional discourse.

“Speak we not of life, liberty and hockey?”

Indeed, sir.

The Sunlight Foundation quickly responded that it ran his words through their magic machine. Even though the group admits, Quigley’s sentences “sparkle and shine” with a vampire-like sheen, alas this speech clocks in at a ninth-grade level.

Word lovers: Check out Quigley’s extension and the Sunlight Foundation’s response reprinted below.

Extension of Remarks: “Honoring the Sunlight Foundation”

Mr. Speaker, I rise, as doth the golden orb pulled across the sky each day by the chariot of Apollo, to decry an ignominy perpetuated on this Body by the captious Sunlight Foundation.

Mr. Speaker, the Sunlight Foundation says we talk dumb.

How can the House of Lincoln, Jefferson and Wilbur Mills suffer such excoriation?

I deem the Sunlight Foundation’s findings fatuous. There has been no deliquescence of Congressional discourse.

Speak we not of life, liberty and hockey?

In the words of Francois de la Rochefoucauld, who I  believe was a defenseman for the original Canucks, “True eloquence consists in saying all that should be said, and that only.”

So true. That is why as the elected arbiter of erudition from the 5th Congressional District, I decry the Foundation’s obvious schadenfreude in our dictional dystopia.

Let me repeat that word again: schadenfreude, which captures the zeitgeist of this badinage.

That is not to say there have not been errors in eloquence. But soft! What F-bombs from Rahm’s office breaks?

His monosyllabic vocabulary evoked images of the corporeal, the priapistic, and the unprintable.

Alas, our words may not always dance “trippingly on the tongue,” as Hamlet encourages of his players in Act III of that eponymous work.

But nor do they need to. As Bertrand Russell said, “To acquire immunity to eloquence is of the utmost importance to the citizens of a democracy.”

And so we do our best in pursuit of that august goal.

As to the Sunlight Foundation’s farcical fomentations, I leave you with the thoughts of one post-modern philosopher, known for his dialectical ruminations on the salubrious effects of fermented hops and barley.

“Facts are meaningless,” notes Homer Simpson. “You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!”

So if the Sunlight Foundation must lampoon our verbal buffoonery, reducing us to linguistic lummoxes, remember Cecil Terwilliger’s immortal retort to his brother Sideshow Bob’s comment about spending four years in clown college: “I’ll thank you not to refer to Princeton that way.”

Sunlight Foundation blogged response:

Dear Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL):

With this post, I offer my humble appreciation that you should deign to take to the House floor to, as you so eloquently say, “decry an ignominy perpetuated on this Body by the captious Sunlight Foundation.”

The ignominy you refer to, the findings that you deem “fatuous,”  sir, are those from our recent study, the one in which we found that Congressional speech had dropped a full grade level since 2005, prompting much discussion as to whether Congress is indeed, as we say in the popular parlance, “dumbing it down.”

I must admit, sir, your clever references do sparkle and shine:

“So if the Sunlight Foundation must lampoon our verbal buffoonery, reducing us to linguistic lummoxes, remember Cecil Terwilliger’s immortal retort to his brother Sideshow Bob’s comment about spending four years in clown college: “I’ll thank you not to refer to Princeton that way.”

Consider me besotted, bemused, and bewitched by your rapier wit (not to mention your fulsome GRE-worthy lexicon).

But, I will not go on long. Rather, to borrow from Polonious, “since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief.”

Sir, we ran your speech through the Flesch-Kincaid calculator. Grade level: 9.858. 334 words, 560 syllables, 23 sentences.

Your speech is a mix of high and low discourse, but it does expose some of the brute force of the F-K test. The test makes no accounting for all your fancy words (zeitgeist, badinage, schadenfreude, priapistic, salubrious). They are all just words with syllables. As we warned in the original post: “It is important to understand the limitations of this metric: it tells us nothing about the clarity or correctness of a passage of text.”

Or rather, in the eternal words of our apparently shared favorite philosopher, Homer Simpson, “I am so smart, I am so smart, s-m-r-t… I mean s-m-A-r-t.”

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