I’ve always hated that expression – it’s both patronising and inaccurate, and both those things tend to annoy me.
It’s patronising, because it assumes that a larger vocabulary is a reliable indicator of higher intelligence. In my experience, and I’m pretty sure that most people who’ve been to a university would agree with me on this, it more likely indicates higher education than higher intelligence. And even then, no one actually needs a tertiary education to speak articulately, just basic diction, basic literacy, and the willingness to refer to a dictionary every so often.
So much for patronising. The inaccuracy is actually a bigger problem. And one way you can tell this is that it actually manages to appear twice in only three words. It’s the assumption that to simplify anything is to make it dumber – and that the direction of any simplification is downward, to something of less worth. (Of course, the ‘down’ carries another association as well – ‘down’ after all is where one tends to find the ‘lower’ classes, and the idea of ‘dumbing down’ is essentially a classist one.)
And yet, and yet, and yet…
Hasn’t pretty much the entire history of scientific development been driven by this very same urge to simplify and clarify? Didn’t Isaac Newton improve our understanding of gravity by simplifying the equations that described it? And as complex as calculus can be, it remains simpler than any other method yet developed of reaching the results it generates.
For that matter, didn’t the Good News Bible reach entirely new audiences by simplifying the language the Bible was written in? One can argue that it lacks the poetry of, for example, the King James Bible, but it’s certainly easier to read and understand.
It’s as if clarity were a bad thing. As if being able to understand and to be understood were somehow improper.
Well, it’s not. So don’t let the bastards grind – or dumb – you down!