There’s not much variety to the words President Donald Trump spits out, but we know which ones are his: To Americans, words like “loser”, “sad”, and “stupid” have become ubiquitous with Trump in 2017. This is likely what led the writer Phillip Roth to angrily call out Trump’s “77-word” vocabulary in the most recent issue of The New Yorker. Roth’s assessment of Trump’s small vocabulary size may be correct, but we should be careful not to assume it means that the President is dumb.
Roth would disagree. In his fiery statement, he said:
I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, or art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.”
Roth equates Trump’s small vocabulary with ignorance, which is in line with with the old-school view of verbal fluency — once considered the “hallmark of intellectual acumen.” But it’s become increasingly apparent to researchers that a non-expansive vocabulary isn’t necessarily the sign of a failing mind; rather, it might be the hallmark of a person sly enough to hook his listeners and persuade them using only a few words.
Let’s consider Trump’s linguistic skills: A 2016 analysis found that Trump’s grammar was roughly at the fifth-grade level. While most GOP candidates used words and grammar on the campaign trail that would be associated with students in grades six through eight, Trump’s were deemed the most immature, the researchers write. An analysis by The New York Times found that Trump frequently repeats the same divisive words — like “stupid,” “horrible”, and “weak.”
Our instincts may say that this means Trump is less intelligent, but rhetorical strategy experts say what he does is smart. Geoffrey Nunberg, Ph.D., a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Trump’s repetitions and digressions come off as “spontaneous and genuine” to people listening at a rally.” Non-sequiturs aren’t troubling if you already get the point. Like most people who attend political rallies, Trump’s audience came there to connect — “they were already convinced,” Nunberg said.
Repetition is considered a rhetorical strategy proven to produce emphasis, clarity, amplification, and emotional effect. Audiences judge spoken content differently than words they read on a page. By repeating phrases, which may look less intelligent later transcribed on paper, the speaker guarantees that their audience walks away with their most important points in mind. When Trump said in the final presidential debate that “Iran should write us a letter of thank you, just like the really stupid — the stupidest deal of all time, a deal that’s going to give Iran absolutely nuclear weapons,” he made sure that listeners linked “stupid” and “Iran” together. His statements provide no context for what he’s saying, but by mashing words together he creates an emotional platform to use against his opponent.
And what about Trump’s less delicate words? The “poverty of vocabulary” (POV) theory says that people who have poor vocabularies rely on curse words as a means to fill in their spotty lexicons. However, a handful of recent studies examining taboo language — curse words and pejoratives — found that the use of taboo words has nothing to do with intelligence or with a lack of vocabulary. “A voluminous taboo lexicon may better be considered an indicator of healthy verbal abilities rather than a cover for their deficiencies,” the researchers wrote. In other words, people with poor vocabularies use “um” to fill in the silences — people with rich vocabularies use “bullshit.”
When Trump curses, author Melissa Mohr wrote in Time, he actually uses “a canny rhetorical strategy.” Mohr, who wrote Holy Sht: A Brief History of Swearing*, writes that research demonstrates that cursing builds up credibility and authenticity. Trump doesn’t drop a curse word because he’s a dope — he wants the audience to feel like he’s one of them. And that level of manipulation is anything but dumb.