Really. It is about how the language we speak is forever changing with nuances nudging comprehension in unexpected directions.
You see, to the despair of purists, English is a living organism that becomes fatter by consuming random linguistic appetizers cooked up by popular American culture. Just as people grow obese by eating fast food, the language itself succumbs to its own Mac attacks and expands outward. As I write this, I can hear my stomach growling in agreement.
Sometimes TV ads infect the habits of speech. Some years ago, everybody was saying, “Where’s the beef?” after the old lady who was promoting Wendy’s hamburgers. “Where’s the beef?” “Where’s the beef?” Yes, it was a trying time for vegetarians, but eventually the expression grew stale for everyone.
Many buzzwords and expressions have come from politics. This has not been a vintage year for that.
In campaigns past, connoisseurs of the spoken tongue marveled at little catch phrases such as “cut and run” and “flip-flop.” Cut and run, a term originally with a nautical meaning, took on the new definition of high-tailing it out of unpopular wars. That was thought at the time to be a cowardly move, even though it was mostly just sensible.
Now both men running for president, although they may disagree on the details, basically want to cut and run from the war in Afghanistan, so cut-and-run accusations have cut and stopped, thus injecting a note of sanity into the argument. Same with flip-flop. Both candidates are guilty of it so the term has outlived its political usefulness as a way of inciting and baffling the voters.
The only memorable references recently have been to various percentages — the 1 percent, the people living the life of Riley, the 99 percent, the people who would like to be living the life of Riley but can’t afford it, and the 47 percent who are apparently incorrigible moochers who irritate the likes of Riley.
To my mind, a flirtation with fractions is no way to embellish a colorful language.
Politics is responsible for another expression that has lately come to the attention of my ears. (My ears often stand at attention for new expressions and whenever they hear the national anthem.)
I speak of “Wow!” This is not a new word, of course, but the context in which I heard it was new.
Not unusually, a candidate for public office was speaking nonsense on a visit here to the word factory and, if I say so myself, I made a pithy and commonsensical observation about his views, something like, “But if Social Security fails, the beneficiaries can’t be expected to get jobs as stevedores to support themselves in their old age.”
That is when the candidate said, “Wow!” in the sense of standing in awe, bereft of all other words in the shadow of my towering ignorance. This “wow” was an indictment and summary of my grand and obvious folly.
So impressive was this linguistic judo trick, I now intend to say “Wow!” at home next time it rains and my wife asks me to take the garbage out. When I say “Wow!” she will know how silly her suggestion is and how laziness must not be disturbed by unreasonable demands. I may add the ironic term “Really?” for emphasis.
Everywhere you go now, Americans are responding to questions or situations by saying “Really?” as if the word came naturally dripping with contempt. It is really maddening.
A colleague says this is part of the shtick of Seth Meyers of “Saturday Night Live.” He has a lot to answer for. Really.
On the plus side, am I right in thinking that the ubiquitous use of the word “like” is in retreat among teenagers, if ever so slightly? “Like” used to infest youthful speech, settling on their sentences like stink bugs on a wall.
Now I increasingly hear younger people answer questions by saying “So ...” before they explain anything. I suspect they need a settling word, a mental pause so their minds can stop multi-tasking on social media to answer a question, and “so” is it. And so on.
This is not ungrammatical or even new. As Mr. Webster’s dictionary explains, “As a conjunction, so is sometimes used colloquially as a superfluous element connecting clauses or to preface or resume one’s remarks.”
Call me a so-and-so for pointing this tic out, but the constant use of “so” — wow! — is also irritating. Really.
Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.