August has long been a month when Americans get a break from politicians with the biggest soapboxes. They flee Washington by design. So, normally, do the people who cover them.
This goes back a long way. Historians of the U.S. Senate say that body in its early years convened from December through the spring, abandoning the city before the summer heat arrived.
Washington, for all the scolding about being a metaphorical “swamp,” built itself from an actual swamp, a backwater of the Potomac River. Its steamy unpleasantness kept the federal government from overreach because no one wanted to be in Washington to extend their arms.
With the coming of what senators quaintly referred to as “manufactured weather” in their chamber during the 20th century, legislative sessions lengthened, but the lawmakers still needed to escape heat rising off the bog.
Thus evolved the August recess, when all Americans took a breath.
Of more recent vintage, our nation occupied this downtime with beach reads, stories about shark sightings and television shows about bachelors and bachelorettes whose paths to true love run through a camera.
This year, we find no break at all. Presidential candidates, a number of them senators who have escaped Washington, have swarmed upon Iowa, a humid place in its own right, to fling around words, lots of words.
And President Trump, also taking flight from Washington, hanging out at his golf resort in New Jersey, has kept the word machinery in motion, too. He tweets regardless of location, and he took day trips to Pennsylvania and New Hampshire for rallies.
Amid this ample talk, nitpickers will sermonize about the weight of all things said by folks of high rank, a fussy insistence that “words matter.”
As in, words have meanings and must be chosen carefully by those who have the most listeners, readers, followers, friends and so forth.
Well, yes and no.
Words seem to have been cheapened, their heft submitted to a paleo diet. They have become discounted to temporary provocations and conveniences.
For one thing, they need as foundational a measure of truth, and that left the scene in a big hurry.
I’ve been in the writing business for roughly four decades, and my discipleship to words and their meanings should be complete. But I’ve lost heart.
So it came as no surprise last week that Ohio State University, swaggering in its insistence of being called “The Ohio State University,” has applied to trademark the word “the.”
(For reference sake, I have used “the” 23 times so far in this column. I paid no royalties for this.)
Typical of the age, an Ohio State spokesman used words to explain that there is nothing crazy about this. The school wants to use “The” on university-branded items. It simply wants to protect its assets.
Although “The,” making its painstaking way forward from the Old English “se,” with etymological detours here and there, has been a language necessity far longer than a branding aid.
Without diving into the specific requirements of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, I believe similar protections could be sought for the color “blue,” the direction “east,” the craving “hunger” and the condition “depressed.”
Blame it on August, if you must. The month seemed to drag summer to a lingering demise, at least, that is, until schools began reconvening so early. Members of Congress will not return to Washington for another three weeks.
Our attention can not be redirected ... too many words stirring. There’s never a shark or bachelorette around when you need one.