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Up Babel Creek Without a Paddle


ramatic changes in our life and culture greet the For-

eign Service officer returning from overseas. These

changes have so much accelerated that a three-year

absence is sufficient to make apparent sweeping currents

moving contemporary American society. …

Since no one likes to be observed objectively, the

officer returned from abroad is well advised to keep quiet

in mixed company. … But on the theory that the


is not

mixed company, I will attempt some impressions.

The first change I noted on return this time was an

advancing American deafness. Tellie sets, record players,

instructions to children and even conversation are turned

up much higher than they were, and people seem now to

strain to hear. It is difficult to catch the meaning of spoken

words above the telephone, the washer, the dryer, the barn

dance in the rec room, the jet whine overhead and the

rumble of traffic. One notices an insistent new shrillness

in voices, a phenomenon once associated with the old and

hard of hearing.

By all means the most startling development in the

American culture in the last three years has been the

deterioration in the use of the English language. … Not

simply a lazy slurring of the syllables, it is a degenera-

tion of the thought that once gave the word its impulse. It

reflects not flabbiness of the tongue muscles, but of the

mind. What was only a noticeable trend among teenagers

a few years ago to substitute a ritual sound like “cool” for a

well-selected descriptive adjective is now accepted as an

adult approach.

Imagine my surprise, then, to

find on my desk a State Depart-

ment memo in which a proposed

course of action was described

as “exciting.” This is the language

my daughter uses anticipating a

Girl Scout hike. I closed my eyes

and saw myself in forest green

with Scout kerchief knotted at

my neck, merit badges on my sleeve, proposing to the

British an exciting condominium to exploit the oil reserves

of Upper Chad.

I was as dismayed by the State Department’s “flap” dia-

lect in the 1950s as I am now by its “crunch” dialect in the

1960s. This effort to show exclusiveness by developing an

“in” jargon may be juvenile, but it is not a serious threat to

our culture. What is serious is linguistic laziness that lets

the art of communication fail by default.

It is a part of the responsibility of an educated elite

to maintain the standards of the mind and intellect. This

process of widening the elite numerically is called the

democratic process. This process is not to be confused

with the process of lowering the standards, which induces

the slow death of the culture.

It seems ironic that a department which emphasizes

the use of foreign languages seems indifferent to its own.

—Excerpted from an article of the same title

by Saxton Bradford,


, July 1966.

50 Years Ago

sies and consulates. There is too much

corporate cloning, and the institution

is change-resistant. The headquarters

operation is overly segmented; we need

to be more supple and better connected

in order to be more effective.”

—Shannon Mizzi, Editorial Assistant

Social Media—

How Diplomats


Be Using It


Q&A session involving Foreign

Service officers from U.S. Embassy

Beijing was removed from the popular

Chinese question-and-answer website at the end of May, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Viewed more than 1 million times,

the Q&A entertained such diverse ques-

tions as how to obtain cheap Broadway

tickets and how to set up a food truck

business in the United States.

Spokesman Benjamin Weber said

the embassy was disappointed by the

removal of the Q&A. “The questions were

submitted from Zhihu, and we under-

stand they were based on the interests

expressed by Zhihu users,” he stated.

According to the


, the removal

was not surprising, given the recent

crackdown on “Western influence” and

online speech in China.

“The U.S. considers this as cultural

outreach or promoting cultural under-

standing,” Willy Lam, a student at the

Chinese University of Hong Kong, told the


. “But Beijing sees this, I think, as an

act of hostility, to try to poison the minds

of young Chinese with American ideas.”