Monday, February 12, 2007


It used to be the case in France that everybody who'd earned their baccalauréat [final secondary-school diploma] was familiar with a three-centuries-old maxim from the pen of Nicolas Boileau [1636-1711]: Ce que l'on conçoit bien s'énonce clairement. This might be paraphrased: If what you've got to say is well thought out, then you'll be able to say it clearly. The reverse statement is interesting: If what you say is unclear, then you didn't think it out well enough beforehand.

I've always been irritated by the inarticulateness of certain well-known speakers of Australian English. An example that comes to mind immediately is Steve Irwin setting out to explain why he thought it fine to carry his baby son into a crocodile pit. I'm willing to admit, though, that inarticulateness, like beauty, might be in the eye (ear?) of the beholder. Maybe countless admirers might have considered, like Steve himself, that his explanations of the crocodile stunt were perfectly well conceived and clearly expressed... which implies that I'm the sole wacko who found them inadequate, if not silly.

John Howard's inarticulate remarks on US presidential candidate Barack Obama irritate me similarly: "If I were running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and be praying as many times as possible for a victory not only for Obama but also for the Democrats."

The elements of his statement, taken one by one, are shallow, if not stupid: "running al-Qaeda in Iraq", "put a circle around March 2008", "praying as many times as possible"... and, when you string them all together, the outcome reminds me of Steve Irwin talking about his kid and his crocodiles. In particular, Howard's explicit insistence that a presidential victory of America's great Democratic Party would be an answer to terrorists' prayers is disgusting. There's no other word for it. Our PM failed to take advantage of an excellent opportunity to keep his mouth shut. And now, the stubborn fellow won't even apologize for his insults to Obama and to the Democrats in general. Meanwhile, I intend to renew my electoral enrollment, because I'm starting to like some (but not necessarily all) of the words from Kevin Rudd.

Generally, political figures have an impressive talent for speaking articulately and persuasively. Whatever faults they might have had, the Democrat presidents Kennedy and Clinton were masterful orators. Yesterday evening, listening to Jacques Chirac talking about the role of his wife Bernadette, I was greatly impressed by his skill at finding just the right words to say just the right things. Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal, too, handled words brilliantly in yesterday's lengthy speech in which she finally presented her presidential program.

On the world scene, alas, we have two champions of inarticulateness: George W Bush and John Howard.

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