Barney and the verbal crutch

We were sitting in a legislative committee hearing the other day when our thoughts turned to a friend of ours named Barney Oldfield. Stay with us here for a minute because we have to tell you about this remarkable fellow before we tell you why we thought of him and what is the point of this post.

Barney died in 2003. He was 93, a Nebraskan through and through who decided during the depression that he had to go to the University of Nebraska and worked something like 16 jobs during his four years at the school to pay his way. He got into radio and started reviewing movies for the station. That led him to meet a lot of famous actors of his day and ultimately a lifelong friendship with one of them, Ronald Reagan. He was known as “King of the Press Agents” when he handled media matters for the 8th Army in Europe during World War Two. Afterward he became a press agent for several Hollywood stars. He once told me one of his big jobs was to make sure that “when Errol Flynn got in, the word didn’t get out.”

Barney made some outstanding investments early in his life and by the time I knew him, he was very well off. He and his wife, Vada, created dozens–perhaps hundreds–of scholarships through various organizations and institutions. He could tell stories and drop names with the best of them. He wasn’t a name-dropper because he actually knew these folks (he once applied for a job in the Air Force and listed his references as, among others, General Omar Bradley and General Dwight D. Eisenhower). In fact he told the story about Errol Flynn while we were sitting at his table on the patio at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, next to Merv Griffin’s table. That’s the kind of crowd he   hung out with. There is a Barney and Vada Oldfield website in case any of you want to learn more about this wonderful man.

What made me start thinking of Barney the other day was a member of the legislature whose questions, statements, and comments were interrupted so often with the words ‘you know what I’m sayin’?” or “you know” that the interruptives darn near obscured what he was saying.

We’ve all known folks like that. Heck, some of us are perpetrators!

In 1997, Barney Oldfield, with a twinkle in his eye but deep sincerity in his heart, went to war against “y’know.” He started offering $1,000 scholarships to the Nebraska high school student who provided a recording of a radio or television interview with the most “you knows” in 15 minutes. The first winner had something like 11 “you knows” in four minutes and 38 seconds. The next year’s winner was an interview with a basketball coach that had 64 “you knows” in 12 minutes. That’s one every eleven seconds or so.

But we think we have a couple of better examples.

In 1990 we listened to a post-game interview of a Missouri Tiger football player after the Tigers had defeated a ranked team for the first time in seven years.. We were so impressed with what the player said that we wrote it down.

“Well, you know, we was kind down, you know, because we just got, you know, beat pretty bad by Indiana, you know and, you know, everyone’s thinking, you know, we want to play Saturday, you know, instead of, you know, working through it, you know, so we just, you know. waited for Saturday, you know, and eventually it got here.”

So Saturday eventually got here. But our player was not yet done.

“You know, last night we had a good meeting you know; Coach…told us some stuff, you knw, and it sunk in and we jsut said, “Hey, we’re gonna go out there and play well.

“Well, you know, beatin’ a top-ranked team, you know, you feel, you know, you can beat, you know, you play agaisnt them, you know, you can play against anyone, you know, because they’re top-ranked and they’re in the top twenty. So we just goin’ in there thinking, you know, and play ball and not be denied again.”

This entire interview segment lasted only 30 seconds. He said “you know” twenty times.

I sent a copy of that transcription to Barney one day. He loved it but he didn’t send me a thousand-dollar check. Nonetheless we shared an understanding that verbal crutches do not help language move. They cripple it and often limit opportunities for those who use them.

Verbal literacy is important. It helps define the person. Perhaps it is something that should be taught with more emphasis in schools, in athletic departments, in state capitols—you can probably name some other places. Oratorical greatness is not the goal. Communication is.

That’s why we thought of Barney the other day in the legislative committee hearing. We became so occupied with keeping track of the speech pattern of one lawmaker that we started keeping score. Reporters do things like that sometimes. We sit through so many meetings and hear so many people speak or hear so many speeches given that we have to find wys to stay alert. The other day we interviewed another of our political leaders and he said “uh” and “well” and things like that so many times that we edited them all together after the answer to one question and we had about 20 seconds of “uh” and “well.” Yes, it’s cruel and it’s probably mean-spirited. But we hear SO MUCH! We jsut have to vent a little bit by doing stuff like that.

We put a stopwatch on the lawmaker in the hearing in the other day. In one stretch of less than a minute of question and answer we caught him saying “you know what I’m saying” five times. This person also threw in four “you know”s and added “I mean” twice in much less than two minutes.

Being able to talk to the folks is an important political talent. Watch this year’s campaigns and see how many candidates who use verbal crutches excessively are winners, especially at higher levels.

None of what we have written is meant to denigrate this lawmaker’s hard and thoughtful work as a member of the General Assembly. He makes every effort to represent the people of his district and carefully weighs the issues on which he has to vote. This was just another little behind-the-scenes look at the human beings who represent us and the human beings who report on them. Both of us sometimes have to find our little amusements, sometimes at the expense of each other, to stay stimulated.


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