Donald Morrison: All the president's words

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BECKET — The most enjoyable things I learned in school were Shakespeare's sonnets, English grammar and how to diagram a sentence.

So my little language-loving heart went pitty-pat the other day when I heard that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had called our president a moron. And not just any kind of moron, but one preceded by the F-word turned into a gerund.

Now, a gerund is one of the most versatile parts of speech ever invented. It is a verb form that can be used as a noun and also as an adjective. Basically, gerunds are words that end in "-ing," like "bleeding," "spitting" and, coming soon, "Thanksgiving."

That last one appears mostly as a noun, but the others can be used as adjectives modifying nouns, like "answer the bleeding phone, for heaven's sake." Or as adjectives modifying other adjectives, as in "my wife was spitting mad at me." (She's fine now; I turned on my phone.)

The other reason I was so pleased to see the gerund making a comeback is that it offers a rare opportunity to praise our president. Intentionally or not, he is enriching public discourse and deepening our appreciation for language.

In the Tillerson case, he inspired his beleaguered secretary of state to take a verb that cannot be used in a family newspaper and turn it into a colorful adjective. This happens a lot in the Trump era, with the proliferation of such gerund phrases as "raving lunatic," "lying demagogue," and "pandering huckster." Our president has helped us appreciate how effective gerunds can be at adding emphasis and crafting more vivid, accurate descriptions.

We also owe a debt to the president for expanding our vocabulary. Thanks to him, with an assist from his North Korean counterpart, Americans now know what a "dotard" is (basically, an old fool). Also "gaslighting," the art of making horrible behavior start to seem normal. Same with "oxymoron," which has nothing to do with morons, but refers instead to a phrase that's self-contradictory — like "clean coal" or "tax cuts that pay for themselves." Meanwhile, the president has taken credit for inventing entirely new expressions, such as "fake," "priming the pump" and the now ubiquitous "covfefe."

Trump has taught us that English is a supple language, in which we can turn almost any noun into an adverb by adding the suffix "-ly," as in "bigly." Or that virtually any noun can be used as a verb, like "schlong" or "Second Amendment."

Richly descriptive words that used to be considered profane now appear in print and sometimes on cable TV simply because our president uses them. Decency prevents a full listing, but they include our president's zesty characterization of the parentage of NFL players who kneel during the national anthem. My grandson recently got in trouble for uttering the expression on his school bus. If only he had cited the source.

During his campaign, our president memorably responded to critics of his intelligence by declaring, "I have the best words." He does — like "beautiful," "great," "winning"— and he repeats them often. These are upbeat, reassuring words that recall Reagan's and Obama's appeals to optimism and hope.

Indeed, the president has given us a master class in rhetorical techniques. One is the shrewd use of "some people say" or "many people believe" to float dubious, hot-button assertions that might cause problems if he made them directly. Another method, which rhetoricians call parataxis, consists of stringing together short, loosely related sentences to create an overall impression of strength and purpose. Like this: "We're going to bring back coal. Not going to happen the other way. Too many bad things happening. We need to build a wall." Pure poetry.

So the next time a cabinet member calls the commander-in-chief a moron — with gerund or without — remind them that our president really does have the best words. They may not be true, but he knows how to use them.

Donald Morrison is an author, lecturer and member of The Eagle's advisory board.


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