Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

Politicians have been riddled by riddles: What’s a politician? A man who will double-cross that bridge when he comes to it. How can you tell when a politician is lying? His lips are moving. What do politicians and diapers have in common? They both need frequent changing— and for the same reason. What’s the difference between a centaur and a senator? One is half man and half horse’s ass— and the other is a creature in mythology.

The 1950 Florida Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate pitted incumbent Claude Pepper against then-Rep. George Smathers. Here’s my expansion of a statement that, according to political folklore, appeared in unsigned pamphlets and in actual stump orations that Smathers trotted around the North Florida pinelands.

Pepper lost the race but went on to a long and distinguished service in the House. Smathers retired from the Senate in 1969, vigorously denying responsibility until the end but acknowledged that the tale had “gone into the history books.” Whether apocryphal or authentic, the “speech” provides a lively example of how a politician can sling muddle at opponents without getting taken to court:

My fellow citizens, it is my patriotic duty to inform you of some disturbing facts about my opponent. Are you aware of the fact the senator is a known sexagenarian? He is a flagrant Homo sapiens who for years has been practicing celibacy all by himself. He has been seen on repeated occasions masticating in public restaurants. In fact, my opponent is a confessed heterosexual who advocates and even participates in social intercourse in mixed company.

His very home is a den of propinquity. The place is suffused with an atmosphere of incense, and there, in the privacy of his own residence, he practices nepotism and extroversion with members of his own family.

Now let’s take a closer look at the salubrious acts committed by members of the senator’s family. It is a controvertible fact that his father, who died of a degenerative disease, made his money publishing phonographic magazines and distributing literature about horticulture. His mother was a known equestrienne who nourished colts on her country estate and practiced her diversions out in the field.

His daughter, who is powerfully attracted to sects, is a well-known proselyte who accosts lay people outside of churches and plies them with hoary platitudes.

His son matriculates openly at Harvard University and is a member of an all-male sextet. For many years his sister was employed as a floorwalker, and she practiced her calling in some of our city’s best department stores. His brother is so susceptible to moral suasion that he has been advocating oral hygiene for the masses.

And at this very moment the senator’s wife is off in wicked New York City living the life of a thespian and performing her histrionic acts before paying customers, many of whom are heroine addicts.

Now I ask you: Do you want a man with such an explicable and veracious reputation occupying public office? Under his influence, our youth might convert to altruism. Clearly a vote for my opponent is a vote for the perpetuation of all we hold dear. A vote forme is a vote for the very antithesis of the American Way.

Oxford University Press’s New Monitor Corpus (which aggregates more than 100 million words of English usage each month from online publications) has identified the negative nouns most frequently modified by liberal, left-wing and Democrat (ic), on the one hand, and conservative, right-wing and Republican on the other. Out of a sample of about 1,200 negative phrases gathered, here are the top 10 negative terms applied to liberals and conservatives in order of overall frequency:

• liberal/left-wing/Democrat: hack, troll, idiot, moron, loon, elitist, extremist, shill, radical, fool

• conservative/right-wing/Republican: extremist, ideologue, nut job, idiot, nut, radical, lunatic, hack, thug, zealot

Two weeks ago, Carnegie Mellon University released a paper titled (not entitled!) “A Readability Analysis of Campaign Speeches from the 2016 U.S. Presidential Campaign.” The document analyzes stump speeches to measure their “readability”— the reading level of an address, ranked from first grade to 12th grade.

The results showed that the level of our political discourse has deteriorated: “In terms of grammar, none of the presidents and presidential candidates could compare with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address— an admittedly high standard, with grammar well above the 10th-grade level. The current candidates generally had scores between sixth and seventh grades, with (Donald) Trump just below sixth-grade level.”