L. Neil Smith's
Number 277, June 27, 2004

"...the traffic jam at the spaceport..."

What Are You Saying?
by Lady Liberty

Special to TLE

Whether you're forming a group or starting a business, one of the first and most important things you consider (after deciding where your focus will lie, of course) is the name of that group or business. Short, sweet, and to the point is usually best. If you get too cute, people may not take you seriously. If you get too clever, people may not recognize who you are or what you do.

A property rights group I know of was formed to fight an eminent domain proceding against a group of local residents and small business owners. Because they considered their efforts to be on behalf of the character of their city and its neighborhoods, they called themselves the Committee for City Name.

That's not a bad name for a group. You know the minute that you hear it that it's a committee and thus a group of people as opposed to an individual. You also know it's almost certainly not a business. You get the idea that the committee is located in City and that it's working on matters within City. The people who named this group did everything right. So why did I learn just last week that the group is undergoing a name change?

The people in the group like the name just fine. It's printed on all of their literature, and that's how local news reports refer to them. They've got the name recognition so many groups work so long and hard to achieve. It would seem that a name change at this juncture would be counterproductive.

Unfortunately, the name itself has turned out to be counterproductive. How could that be? Well, it seems that when interested people look for the group's web site, they have a hard time finding it. That's not because the web site isn't in the search engines—search by group name, and it comes up in first place. And it's not because the name isn't appropriate. No, it's because apparently too many people just cannot spell the word "committee."

Now, you might think that sure, there are a couple of folks out there who, bright as they might otherwise be, are poor spellers. Or you could consider that, despite most adults having no problem with a simple and frequently used word like "committee," a few people just aren't all that bright. In both instances, you'd be wrong. The group isn't going to so much trouble merely to accommodate a relatively small number. No, the group has received so many complaints and dealt with so many problems that organizers believe the risk of losing—at least temporariily—their well established name recognition is worth the change to something that more people can spell.

I understand, of course, the desire for such groups to find as many supporters for their cause as they can. That means that they need to be found by as many potential supporters as possible. But I think it's a shame that they're "dumbing down" their name when it would be so much better in the long run to "smarten up" those in the general public who can't spell a relatively simple word like "committee."

Too many schools and far too many businesses let students and employees by with poor spelling and grammar because, "Well, it's good enough," or because, "Everybody talks that way." I've personally received business correspondence that the average 10 year-old should have been able to improve significantly, but companies let such missives go out on company letterhead, offering an image of their business I can't imagine any owner would appreciate. Is this because such letters aren't read by the person who signs them? Or is it because the person who signs them isn't any brighter than the person who writes them? I fear that the latter is the case...

The truth of the matter is that I should probably not say "brighter," effectively calling some letter writers stupid. Many of them aren't dumb. They've just been allowed to get away with poor grammar and spelling for so long that they actually think what they're saying is perfectly fine. And for this, I blame teachers and parents. I blame schools that make tests easier instead of classes harder just so enough students will pass to make the system look good. And I blame the general public for considering such things as academic excellence far less important than Friday night football games or whether or not Sally has stylish clothes.

Kids are capable of—and deserve—far better. This year at the National Spelling Bee competition, five of the words from the first round of competition included: Biedermeier, onomatopoeia, gyascutus, boeotian, and rijsttafel. The * first round! * Not only could I not spell these—and I'm pretty good at spelling—I'm not even sure just what four out of the five actually mean. (I suspect most of you don't either, so I'm going to try not to feel too bad about it right now.) Granted, a lot of these kids are the best and the brightest. But even if you can't spell (or pronounce) "onomatopoeia," even the least among us ought to be able to manage plain, simple English with even a little effort.

But that, I'm afraid, hits on another sore point with me and the real underlying cause of the problem: kids typically don't put forth much effort unless they have to. Teachers and parents are supposed to be encouraging—and forcing, when necessary—that effort, not catering to laziness. And unfortunately, the catering that's become all too frequent in schools and in homes is slipping over into the rest of the world. I see with disturbing regularity billboards with misspellings or incorrect punctuation. I hear newscasters on television say words like "anyways." I actually heard a Senator the other day pronounce the word "Illinois" with an "s" at the end! And nobody blinked!

So now those kids disinclined to put forth much effort aren't made to learn in school, and their lack of learning is reinforced in the world outside the classroom by such things as those poorly written billboards and badly spoken newscasters. Instead of reading—even comic books are just fine!—kids are vegetating in front of their Play Stations because parents are too lazy to be real parents and limit their childrens' use of electronic toys while encouraging more mentally stimulating activities. And the end result of all that is that those apparently relative few who still know how to read, write, and speak properly are sinking to the level of the lowest common denominator (newspapers for some years have said that articles must be written for the average sixth grader's reading level, and I suspect it's gone down from there by now) when we should be challenging others to come up to some level of competency.

If we continue to let kids get high school diplomas when they're functionally illiterate, and if colleges continue to pump out grads that can't communicate well or properly (to be fair, colleges are having a heck of a time giving remedial English classes to incoming freshman who are nowhere near high school graduate level), we're all going to lose something important. After all, it's the ability to communicate clearly that keeps us all informed of things large and small, from office parties to our medical care, and from funny stories to urgent warnings. Communication is the single greatest factor in our ability to learn new things or to teach others from our own areas of expertise. It's the skill to say exactly what we mean and to convey our own inner thoughts for another's understanding that lubricates all of our relationships from the most casual to the most intimate. Communication is, in short, not something we can afford to be lazy about—or frankly, to let others be lazy about, either.

I'm toying with the notion of forming a committee to take some action on this serious problem. But I'm limited, obviously, in what I can call it. At the moment, I'm considering calling it "Duh." Short, sweet, and to the point, just like names ought to be, and with the added bonus of being inherently descriptive. But with a silent "h" at the end of the word, I kood just bee axing for mor trubble then its werth.

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