A marvelously original and informative book about the ever-changing American language that offers surprising insights into why we talk the way we talk.
With dazzling wit and acuity, three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Leslie Savan dissects contemporary language to discover what our most popular idioms reveal about America today. She traces the paths that words and expressions travel from obscurity to ubiquity. She describes how “real people” create slang and colorful phrases (I don’t think so; Bring it on!; Dude; Outside the box); how the media, advertising, politics, and business mine the language for these phrases in order to better sell products, ideas, and personalities; and how these expressions, now that they’ve hit the big time, then burst out of our mouths as “celebrity words,” newly glamorous and persuasive.
Words like Duh! and Whatever have become such an indispensable form of communication that they’re replacing our need to articulate any real thought. Whether it’s George Tenet convincing George W. Bush that finding WMD in Iraq would be “a slam dunk” or Microsoft telling you that its latest software is a “no-brainer,” this bright, snappy language affects us all–up close and personal.
Smart, dynamic, and great fun, Slam Dunks and No-Brainers is–for everyone who loves the mysteries and idiosyncrasies of language–well, a no-brainer.
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Leslie Savan wrote a column about advertising and commercial culture for The Village Voice for thirteen years. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1991, 1992, and 1997. Her writing has appeared in Time, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Salon, and she has been a commentator for National Public Radio. Savan is the author of The Sponsored Life: Ads, TV, and American Culture. She lives with her husband and son in New Jersey.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Here’s the Deal
From the tough-guy kick ass to the airless opt, from the high-strung Hel-lo?! to the laidback hey, from the withering whatever to the triumphant Yesss!, an army of brave new words is occupying our social life with coast-to-coast attitude. The catchwords, phrases, inflections, and quickie concepts that Americans seem unable to communicate without have grown into a verbal kudzu, overlaying regional differences with a national (even an international) pop accent that tells us more about how we think than we think.
What makes a word a pop word? First of all, we’re not talking mere clichés. Most pop phrases are indeed clichés—that is, hackneyed or trite. But a pop phrase packs more rhetorical oomph and social punch than a conventional cliché. It’s the difference, say, between It’s as plain as the nose on your face and Duh, between old hat and so five minutes ago. Pop is the elite corps of clichés.
Nor is the pop vocabulary simply a collection of slang. Some pop phrases, like bling bling or fashionista, may technically be slang, or “nonstandard” and probably transient English. But most pop speech today is made up of perfectly ordinary and permanent words, like don’t go there and hello. It’s how our tongues twist them that changes everything.
Here’s my definition: Pop language is, most obviously, verbal expression that is widely popular and is part of popular culture. Beyond that, it’s language that pops out of its surround; conveys more attitude than literal meaning; pulses with a sense of an invisible chorus speaking it, too; and, when properly inflected, pulls attention, and probably consensus, its way. (And if it does most of the above, it gives you a reward: a satisfying “pop.”)
There have always been popular catchphrases, of course, and in the everyday jungle of small talk, they’ve always been used as verbal machetes, proven tools for cutting through confusion—as well as for showing off, fitting in, dishing dirt, shutting someone up, flirting, and fighting. But today, as the media repeat and glamorize buzzphrases constantly, the ability to spout a catchy word or two has become a more highly valued skill—a social equalizer, a sign that you, too, share the up-to-date American personality.
Or, to put that in pop: These phrases are our go-to guys—whether flashing bling or singing “Ka-ching!,” they get the job done.
And everybody has them working. Coming off a spate of fund-raisers in 2003, George W. Bush appeared on The Tonight Show and joked to Leno about the audience: “These folks didn’t pay five grand apiece to get in here? I’m outta here!” As John Kerry took the controls of a helicopter on a campaign hop in Iowa, he shouted, “Rock ’n’ roll!” And, of course, both men said (Bush of Iraqi insurgents, Kerry of Bush’s attacks on his record), “Bring ’em on!” As it turns out, AARP-eligible presidential candidates are not so far removed, ideal-American-personality-wise, from babelicious Gen X actresses, like Cameron Diaz, who told Demi Moore in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, “Bring it on, bitch!”
Light, self-conscious, and theatrical, chockful of put-downs and exaggerated inflections, today’s pop talk projects a personality that has mastered the simulation of conversation. It’s a sort of air guitar for the lips, seeking not so much communication as a confirmation that . . . hey, we’re cool.
Human communication may seem to hold greater possibilities than that, but the first obligation of pop language is not to help us plumb life’s mysteries but to establish that you recognize and can characterize any pre-characterized thing or situation. A famous person not looking up to par? Someone somewhere will say, “Bad hair day.” A familiar name escapes you? I’m having a senior moment. Did you something dumb? “What was I thinking?” Producing the right phrase at the right time reassures us: I’m awake, it says. I connect.
The pop response can be punched in from Seattle to Waco, from the Laundromat to the New York Stock Exchange. Each modular phrase is part of a franchise deal, whose terms are the same everywhere. When I say “No way” and you say “Way,” we may be exchanging a nod of appreciation for our mutual acquaintance with Wayne and Garth or Bill and Ted (assuming we’re old enough to remember those characters), but we are also reducing each other to interchangeable parts, minor guest stars in that moment’s passing sitcom.
Though pop ripples with such ironic attitude, irony is not the only attitude the language conveys. The desirable mass personality is not so one-dimensional: Sometimes it’s a baseball-capped, down-to-earth regular guy, trading in roadkill, goin’ south, and I owe you. At other times it’s socially earnest, talking up community, giving back, empowerment, and, in general, its issues. Or its voice might suddenly turn all corporate cubicle with bottom lines, agendas, and win-wins, asking people it meets, And you are? The same person who forms an “L” with his hand and places it on his forehead to call someone “Loser” can probably, when necessary, switch-hit to a morally upright It’s the right thing to do. These catchphrases (and occasional gestures) may play on different teams, but they all have one thing in common: the ability to be neatly snapped into place, thereby releasing a little waft of some attitude.
And the attitude—or, more precisely, the platitude as attitude—is emboldened by the knowledge that, if properly phrased, it will resonate with millions. Whether biting or benign, what all pop phrases have in common is the roar of a phantom crowd: They always speak of other people having spoken them. It’s as if the words came with built-in applause signs and laugh tracks. And keeping us on track, they provoke in us click responses, the sort of electronic-entertainment tic we twitch and jerk with more often lately. We hear too much information, your worst nightmare, or (my worst nightmare) Duh, and we immediately sense the power structure of the moment. In fact, we may subconsciously applaud such speakers because they’ve hypertexted our little lives right into Desperate Housewives, American Idol, or whatever piece of media currently holds life’s sparkle.
Brave New Words
Hey, lady, lighten up. It just feels good to grab the mot juste; there’s a rush, a ride, and a whirl. And, OK, some pop talk is on the predictable side, but what’s so wrong with knowing how someone will finish a sentence? At least it makes us feel that we know what’s going on in the world.
It’s true, pop can be just plain fun, and it’s always supremely useful. Coinages like yuppie, glitterati, and red state/blue state help organize the world, setting up reassuring stepping stones through the raging currents of affairs. These stones may amount to little more than hardened stereotypes, but without them, how could we navigate postmodern life? The very term road rage, for instance, has made us more aware of the phenomenon, probably saved a few lives: Do you want to be a red-faced, veins-popping-out-of-your-skull road-rage warrior who kills children in order to get one car ahead on the highway? Now that road rage has a handy label, we may believe that violence on the road occurs more often than it actually does, as one study has suggested. However, workplace rage, air rage (angry airline passengers), sideline rage (uncontrollable parents or coaches at children’s sports games), and roid rage (steroid-induced aggression) apparently really have increased. Whether a trend is smaller or larger than the coinage that describes it, it’s the words themselves that are all the rage.
Pop speech is a form of entertainment that almost anyone can perform. It connects people instantly. It can keep conversations bobbing with humor and work against our taking ourselves too seriously. It’s nothing if not accessible.
But while pop language is fun, useful, and free, it is so in the same way that advertising-supported media is fun, useful, and “free”: It requires subtle social and political trade-offs. And so I come not to praise pop, but to ask, What do we lose and gain in the deal?
A friend of mine who rewrites movie scripts is often told to add certain phrases to “punch them up,” he says. “It’s like McDonald’s discovered that people have three basic tastes—sweet, salty, and fat—and therefore it never has to create foods for more subtle tastes.” Yesss! (the spoonful of sugar in so many movies) takes care of positive, overcoming-the-odds feelings, while Hel-lo?! covers dealing with idiots, I don’t think so can stop a fool in his tracks, and so on.
This is the main trade-off: Pop’s prefab repartee can serve as thought replacement. Get over it. Not ready for prime time. It’s a no-brainer. Repeated and mentally applauded over years, pop language carves tunnels that ideas expressed otherwise are too fat to fit through. Whatever point a speaker is making, it gains acceptance not on its merits, but on how familiarly it’s presented and how efficiently tongue snaps into groove. It’s as if each of these phrases were itself a no-...
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