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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

dumb down

(1990’s | academese | “oversimplify,” “slow down”)

This humble expression is well established if your criterion is appearances in multiple reference books. Both Chapman (1986) and Lighter (1994) cover it in their slang dictionaries. (Four of Lighter’s six citations date from 1980 or later, but the first goes back to 1933.) Their definitions are generally similar: it is a transitive verb that means to make something simpler so slower people can follow it. Lighter cites S.J. Perelman in a 1951 piece, yet one more example of the great one’s semantic legerdemain and further proof of his place at the pinnacle of American humor. I’ve also seen it attributed to Ernie Bushmiller, author of the comic strip Nancy. The phrase seems to have risen through the academic ranks starting in the late 1980’s in the context of textbooks and instruction. By the mid-1990’s it could apply to anything that requires effort to learn, even though it remained most common among educators and journalists.

The usage of this verb is overwhelmingly transitive, but it does pop up occasionally in the intransitive, as in this example from Wilfrid Sheed (Transatlantic Blues, 1978) remarking on not being able to curb his outstanding academic performance despite his best efforts: “I had made every effort to dumb down and be in the swim.” When intransitive, it is de facto a reflexive verb. Imagine a sentence like “The curriculum dumbed down in response to low test scores,” which can only mean “the curriculum dumbed itself down,” which disguises the true meaning of the sentence: “the administration dumbed down the curriculum” — back to transitive. It isn’t something that just happens; it requires an agent, and an object.

The phrase always refers to shortcomings of the audience — students, readers, viewers, etc. and therefore it’s always pejorative. No one ever talks about dumbing down the tax code, which nearly everyone agrees badly needs simplifying. But when there’s disagreement about whether biology class or religious doctrine or an ad campaign needs to be simplified so more people can grasp or adopt it — that’s when “dumb down” gets thrown around. Fifty years ago, we would have expressed this idea with reference to the audience, not the material. The concept contained in “patronizing” or “talking down to” the audience is fundamentally the same as the idea of dumbing down the lesson, even though they act on different objects and have different targets. “Patronizing” suggests the audience is aware their intelligence is being slighted, but “dumbing down” suggests they’re too stupid to know or care.

This expression came in on the heels of a surge of religious right activism in the eighties, and it became prominent among academics defending their traditions against the obscurantist hordes who didn’t approve of evolution or Catcher in the Rye or Thomas Jefferson. So it started as an accusation: these people want to weaken your kids’ education in the name of their crabbed and rather original interpretations of God’s law, and they start by dumbing down the textbooks. But makers and followers of American education policy had many other fish to fry, and the phrase quickly became more general, inside and outside the education profession. When you dumb things down for kids, you’re usually talking about some kind of educational endeavor, but when you’re doing it for adults, that’s news or entertainment or politics. So the real question becomes “How intelligent is the audience?” or perhaps “How much high-toned stuff will they be willing to sit through before the car chases come back on?” Do students or viewers have to be fed pap because that’s all they’ll tolerate, or will enough of them understand detailed or informed commentary to make it worthwhile? That’s the subterranean issue raised when you use this phrase, and it has striking implications for what it pleases us to call our democracy.


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