There’s A Word for That: Logastellus

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Were it not for four long years of the Trump presidency, most people would be oblivious to the concept of the Dunning-Kruger Effect: the cognitive bias where a person who is incompetent at something is unable to recognize their own incompetence. Moreover, that individual has a false inflated sense of confidence about their supposed competence. You might recall some of Donald Trump’s most famous quotes revealing his complete lack of humility and truthful self-assessment: “Sorry losers and haters, but my IQ is one of the highest — and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault” [Twitter, 9-5-13]. “I’m intelligent. Some people would say I’m very, very, very intelligent.” [Fortune, 4-4-2000]. “Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart… I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star… to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius… and a very stable genius at that!” [Twitter, 7-11-19].

The term Dunning-Kruger Effect was coined by David Dunning and Justin Kruger, psychologists at Cornell University, in their 1999 study titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” Dunning points out the irony of the effect: “the knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at that task.” Consequently, without appropriate management and training, such a person cannot improve because they are essentially clueless about how bad they are at a particular job. In subsequent research, Dunning has found the Dunning-Kruger Effect rampant among employees of high-tech firms and medical companies, professors at universities, and among drivers. Dunning was remiss in not adding politicians to that list.

In 1970, John McClellan [Butler University] introduced a term that could be considered a companion to Dunning’s — logastellus, pronounced “low ga STEL us,” defined as “a person whose enthusiasm for words outstrips his knowledge of them.” In other words, a person who loves words but doesn’t know much about them. The word is derived from the Greek word “logo” (meaning word, speech, talk”) and “-ellus” (a dimunitive word-forming element, from Latin); thus, literally, the word means “little word.” In his typewritten newsletter on linguistics, Word Ways [August 1970], McClellan credited the actual coinage of the word to his Latin professor, Mr. Samuel Carr, 50 years earlier. McClellan writes: “Nor does serendipity stop here, but leads us gently back in time to the 1920s, and a hot classroom in June where a class of discipulastelli [a made-up Latin coinage for “small student or followers”] prepared for the forthcoming Latin College Board examination… The class was taught by Mr. Samuel Carr, who gave us whatever love of his subject we now have, almost 50 years later. But we did not know, then, of his subtle influence — we just wanted to get outside into the sunshine as quickly as possible. Mr. Carr is looking over my shoulder now as this is being written, and is saying in his dry, unforgettable way, “McClellan, I would like to propose the word LOGASTELLUS for a person whose enthusiasm for words outstrips his knowledge of them!”

Interestingly, Donald Trump not only exhibited the Dunning-Kruger Effect, he was also a classic logastellus. Remember his famous quote: “I know words. I have the best words.”? Yet, Trump consistently spoke — and often incoherently, mind you — using the vocabulary of an eight-year-old (third- to seventh-grade reading level), according to an analysis of his first 30,000 words in office. And his only linguistic contribution was the famous “covfefe” which was his mistyping of the word “coverage.” In their study of Trump’s speech, Linguistic Inquiries into Donald Trump’s Language, Kristina Bjorkenstam and Gintare Grigonyte [Department of Linguistics, Stockholm University], write: “A common observation, often remarked upon in both traditional and social media, is that Donald Trump repeats himself, and that his vocabulary is more limited and his grammar less complex than the language of other politicians. His casual speaking style in general and frequent use of repetitions in particular are commonly attributed to efforts to persuade by means of influencing the emotions of the audience and to distance himself from career politicians. Leith (2017) notes that “[s]imple (or absent) grammatical structures leave the audience with nothing so taxing as a train of thought: rather, a random collage of emotive terms, repeated for emphasis. You come away from a Trump speech with a feeling, not an argument.” [From Chapter 3: I Know Words, I Have the Best Words: Repetitions, Parallelism, and Matters of (in)Coherence.]

In the article “Donald Trump Talks Like a Third-Grader” for Politico [August 13, 2015], Jack Shafer wrote: “Donald Trump isn’t a simpleton, he just talks like one. If you were to market Donald Trump’s vocabulary as a toy, it would resemble a small box of Lincoln Logs. Trump resists multisyllabic words and complex, writerly sentence constructions when speaking extemporaneously in a debate, at a news conference or in an interview. He prefers to link short, blocky words into other short, blocky words to create short, blocky sentences that he then stacks into short, blocky paragraphs.” Shafer goes on to note Trump’s favorite words which he uses frequently: “Flattening the English language whenever he speaks without a script, Trump relies heavily on words such as ‘very’ and ‘great,’ and the pronouns ‘we’ and ‘I,’ which is his favorite word. As any news observer can observe, he lives to diminish his foes by calling them ‘losers,’ ‘total losers,’ ‘haters,’ ‘dumb,’ ‘idiots,’ ‘morons,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘dummy’ and ‘disgusting.'” Welcome back to the elementary school playground…

Speaking of pretenders, there is a wonderful word that is seldom used: sciolist, someone who pretends to be knowledgeable or learned. Sciolist is derived from the Late Latin sciolus (meaning “one who knows little”). A related term is sciolism, defined as the unfounded pretense to knowledge.

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Read related posts: Isaac Asimov: There is a Cult of Ignorance in the United States
Will We Have Free and Fair Elections Again?
What is the Dunning-Kruger Effect?
Plato’s Warning: If You Don’t Vote, You Will Be Governed by Idiots
Is the United States a Democracy or a Republic?

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