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Wendell Johnson's Voice: "Plogglies"

Click here for a .wav file of Wendell Johnson telling his story of the Plogglies.

In addition to providing a delightful story, the audio clip also demonstrates the state of his "stuttering." I recall what I would call his "severe stuttering" when I was a boy in the 1930s and 1940s. Although the "p" (in his reference to People in Quandaries) causes him a brief disfluency in this 1956 excerpt, the clip indicates the generally normal speech of this person who essentially transformed himself from someone with a serious "speech handicap" into a "public speaker" of considerable renown.

What follows is some background about the significance of the plogglies.


This excerpt is taken from one of Dad's lectures in his University of Iowa General Semantics course. He taught the course for many years, and it was one of the most popular courses on campus at the time. This excerpt is from a lecture on December 12, 1956. By that time the course was in such demand that it was broadcast over the University's AM radio station, WSUI.

I am no more capable of summarizing general semantics here than I am on the Home Page. But I will try to position the ploggly discussion.

One of the concepts within the literature of general semantics is the notion of "levels of abstracting." That is, our language permits -- indeed, almost compels -- the notion that speech is speech. A statement that, "When I put a thermometer in a pot of boiling water in Iowa City, at 800 feet above sea level, in 1987, the thermometer registered 212 degrees F.," is seemingly no better or worse than a statement (without dates or definitions) that, "The commies have taken over our government." An awareness of levels of abstraction enables us to tell one from the other. We can describe: phenomena we have observed with the aid of instruments like microscopes or telescopes, what we can see with the naked eye, statements about those statements, statements about those statements, and so forth, as our language becomes more and more general.

At one end or the other of this ladder of abstraction are the explanations we provide ourselves for that which we cannot see. They are our theories, our guesses -- or our faith. In this portion of the lecture, for example, he describes the evaporation of water from a glass, and then postulates the molecular theory as explanation in such a way as to deliberately bring the class to laughter at the improbability of such a theory.

In 1956, before ball point pens became popular, many wooden pencils were consumed in the average university. Iowa was no exception. So in the course of explaining the language of theories Dad puts forward his theory as to why it is that whenever you go to find a pencil you can't find one, and that if you do find a pencil, and go to the pencil sharpener it is always full of shavings. His theory is that there are "plogglies" that come in the night and run the pencils through the sharpeners. The suggestion, of course, is that a ploggly theory of the disappearance of water from a glass is about as rational as the molecular theory.

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