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The gift of tall talk

The West Indian novelist V. S. Naipaul, during a visit to the United States, suggested that when the urgent problems of life -- food, shelter, survival -- are resolved, people apply the standards of urgency to less urgent problems.

Presumably this helps Mr. Naipaul, and the rest of us, understand why Americans so loosely use the term "crisis." When we discover a temporary shortage of engineers, we declare a "technology crisis." If trash collectors go on strike for two days, the second day constitutes a "paralyzing crisis in government."

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Nothing special is going wrong? Never mind. We assign every stage of life its own crisis, beginning with two years of age: the "mid-infancy crisis."

These are not crises as an Asian or an African or a latin American would apply the word. But we do not back off. Quite the contrary. If we feel other people, with their crises, are not paying enough attention to our favorite crisis, we escalate and call it a crisis of "epidemic proportions."

Here are a couple of random samples o our rhetorical extremism:

"The whole physical structure of our country is falling apart." What dire catastrophe can these words from the lips of Rep. James J. Howard (D) of New Jersey be describing? A "no frills" highway program, reducing the number of lanes in certain interstate throughways and providing fewer "roadside amenities."

In the interest of calm balance of the subject, our second quote reads: "a Dunkirk for transit." This figure of speech, conjuring up German planes strafing the beach at Dunkirk as British soldiers wade toward evacuating vessels that are not there, is merely the arresting way the Urban Mass Transportation Administration has chosen to characterize its budget cuts.

As a final example, we submit the exhortation: "Save Florida from drowning. . . !" Surely floods must have occured that nobody has heard of? Not at all. The governor of Florida is appealing to the President of the United States for more federal aid for Cuban refugees.

We don't quite know how to accustom Mr. Naipaul, or any other visitor from less affluent parts of the world, to the high notes of anguish we Americans so routinely trill.

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How can an outsider get used to baseball players saying with a straight face, "I can't live with that," when offered salaries four times the wage of the President of the United States?

Ours is a speech luxurious with exces, in which "revolution" gets attached to style in hats, "crusade" is what one conduct when one wants a new play-ground, and practically everybody sees himself or herself, in one way or another, as "oppressed,"

If our habit of exaggeration cannot be defended, it can be partly explained. In a culture where the norm for decibels gets set by the Rolling Stones, Howard Cosell, and deodorant ads, the whisper or the subtle understatement, it is assumed, will get you nowhere.

And so, from childhood on, we scream "Incredible!" when a teacher dares to assign homework over the weekend and "Fantastic!" if we happen to like a hamburger.

Once a month, if not more often, we are presented with the movie of the year, the book of the decade, the fight of the century.

An "overplus of expression," as James Russell Lowell called it, is our national heritage from frontier days, when Davy Crockett could chant: "I can outlook a panther and outstare a flash of lightning, tote a steamboat on my back."

But our natural overstatement does make it difficult for ourselves as well as the rest of the world. There is an injustice to using extreme words casually. What remains for Amnesty International when a middle-class citizen cries "police brutality" to describe an officer's rudeness in handing him a ticket for speeding? What do we have left for a nuclear bomb after we've already described a necktie as "Dynamite!"?

Do we have something here approaching a "language" crisis?

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