Jacques Barzun Leaves Us a “Simple & Direct” Legacy

By J.F. McKenna

Jacques Barzun praised Americans as a “verbally exuberant people,” but never hesitated to caution us against telling anything but the straight story. In that respect, the iconic historian and prose craftsman illustrated the genius behind his adopted country itself.

Somehow, amid ginned-up fiscal crises and a contentious presidential election last fall, a lot of Americans missed the passing of Barzun, 104. That’s a pity, since the good scholar proved to be a champion of George Orwell’s saying that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” And as corrupt thought goes, so goes the Republic.

Think the argument is overstated? Consider just this recent tidbit from Time magazine: “Gore has more inside knowledge than the average futurist about both politics and business….”  Insider knowledge about the future? Knowledge, by definition, refers to understanding gained by actual experience. Above-average futurist Al Gore, maybe. Time traveler Al Gore, I think not. Maybe just a Time reader.

“The language is in a precarious state,” Barzun declared in 1958. “Today, it is the educated who lead the way in destruction. It is they who in the name of freedom deny any social obligation to use decently that valuable property, the mother tongue. No circle or profession is privileged: our lax democratic manners tolerate everything, while literature of every grade uses by preference the language of the gutter….”

Barzun made that observation 11 Presidents ago. And he kept up the good fight for clarity right until the end. When he died, the centenarian was completing yet another questionnaire for American Heritage Dictionary, of whose usage panel he was a distinguished member.

“Barzun had always held a firm line against what he saw as the misuse of English, though it was his second language: He moved to the United States from France at the age of 12,” Ben Zimmer wrote in The Boston Globe last November. “He attended Columbia University, received his PhD in history there, and then taught at Columbia until his retirement, designing the school’s Great Books curriculum. While he was primarily known for his sweeping cultural histories, including the best-selling From Dawn to Decadence, Barzun also saw it as his mission to sound the alarm about linguistic degradation.”

That mission Barzun gladly inherited from cultural forefathers such as Mark Twain, who still reminds us that the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is as great a difference as that between lightning and the lightning bug. Like Huck Finn’s father, Barzun valued clarity and decorum, whether in the private parlor or the public forum. And he championed both virtues with a sense of grateful patriotism.

Starting in the ‘60s, the dictionary’s panelists “made their opinions known through annual surveys on disputed points of language use,” the Globe article reported. “His fellow panelist William Zinsser, the great writer about the art of writing, described some of the survey questions in a piece for Life magazine….While most of the panelists approved of the general political use of regime or dynasty (as in ‘the Truman regime’), Barzun held the line: ‘These are technical terms, you blasted non-historians!’”

In his classic book Simple & Direct, Barzun pegs the root difficulty of this imprecision as “being blind and deaf to words — not seeing the words for the prose” — adding that this handicap diminishes business and science, journalism and government. Each time I see “revenue enhancement” substituted for “new taxes” in articles and speeches, I realize that Barzun’s long-fought campaign cannot end with him, especially in the public square.

As Orwell says in Politics and the English Language,  “political language — and with variations that is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable….”

Barzun would surely tell you that the only sure defense against such corruption, and the greater consequences it brings, is “to re-sensitize the mind to words.”

CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, communications consultant and former editor of the national manufacturing magazine Tooling & Production. He has chased stories throughout the country and as far away as Japan, Israel and that most exotic of financial lands, Wall Street. Reach him at jfmckwriter23@yahoo.com or through his LinkedIn profile: Jos. F. McKenna.



  1. Joe, when I was a radio reporter I sometimes had interview subjects object when I quoted certain statements they’d made moments before back to them word for word. After having second thoughts some claimed “that’s not what I said!” When I offered to play my recording as proof – they’ve basically commented “Well, that’s not what I meant.”

    As you’ll recall well-known egghead Humpty Dumpty’s communications strategy deployed on Alice in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass” is hard to crack.

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

  2. Reblogged this on historycatblog.

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