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Pop Language in Your Life, the Media, and Like . . . Whatever

Written by Leslie SavanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Leslie Savan

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On Sale: October 04, 2005
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-307-26432-9
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt|Table of Contents

Synopsis

In this marvelously original book, three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Leslie Savan offers fascinating insights into why we’re all talking the talk—Duh; Bring it on!; Bling; Whatever!—and what this reveals about America today. Savan traces the paths that phrases like these travel from obscure slang to pop stardom, selling everything from cars (ads for VWs, Mitsubishis, and Mercurys all pitch them as “no-brainer”s) to wars (finding WMD in Iraq was to be a “slam dunk”). Real people create these catchy phrases, but once media, politics, and businesses broadcast them, they burst out of our mouths as celebrity words, newly glamorous and powerful. Witty, fun, and full of thought-provoking stories about the origins of popular expressions, Slam Dunks and No-Brainers is for everyone who loves the mysteries of language.

Excerpt

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-brainer.

Which leads to the questions: Does a buzz-loaded repertoire displace thinking with a pleasant buzz? Are we, in fact, talking about some kind of syllabic soma?

As the late Neil Postman wrote in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Aldous Huxley painted a more probable future in Brave New World than George Orwell did in 1984, because, over the long run, pleasure is more likely than fear to produce compliant citizens. In “Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history,” Postman wrote. “As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. . . . Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

Today, there are clearly attempts by the government and corporations to conceal truth and to insist, as Newspeak did, that War Is Peace and Ignorance Is Strength—but rarely in so many words. Such harsh notes don’t jibe with our vernacular. Much more effective is the let-me-entertain-you language of the mass media; it bubbles and bops, tickles and cajoles until we come to adore it. I’m not saying that pop language is a tranquilizing drug with totalitarian side effects, like Huxley’s soma. In its ability to break through obfuscation, which it does every day, pop can be a powerful force for truth. But in its ability to divert thought and numb our imaginations with commercial confetti, pop can also be a force that drowns the truth in “a sea of irrelevance.”

Way/No Way

The pleasure of pop derives from our intimate, id-ridden relationship with media and marketing. The continual flow between the way “real people” talk and mass media that mine their speech in order to better sell things (products, arguments, “personalities”) creates commercial-flavored norms that real people then absorb. Pop language both reflects and shapes those norms, with all their unspoken values and expectations.

That’s what this book is about. What it’s not about is collecting gaffes or other evidence for the grammar police (there’s an overworked phrase). And while I will occasionally cover word origins and first-recorded uses, this book is not really about them either.

And jargon? Get outta here. Unlike the jargon that binds relatively small groups (be they skateboarders or day traders, instant-message junkies or ink-stained wretches), true pop pops for everyone, regardless of age, race, class, region, or occupation.

Pop lingo is usually stereotyped as coming out of the mouths of media-savvy adolescents, Gen Xers, or Boomers, but pop permeates us all. Militia men, gangsta rappers, soccer moms, and all of their children traffic in Yeah, right, Not even close, and You just don’t get it. Even a low hipness level is no longer a barrier. In spots for the U.S. Mint, a very downtown George Washington was out hawking the new “golden dollar” with the refrain that “It’s so money.” Suck has global reach. Cool is simply galactic.

By definition, jargon doesn’t have such demographic reach, though some jargon may eventually move on to broader status. And so, while I will discuss “mini-pop” lingoes from which mass-pop may derive (such as hip-hop slang or the corporate patois), this book isn’t a compendium of various group jargons. The focus here is on words that have already reached general circulation; that float, perhaps for years, in the mainstream; and that function as verbal viruses, spreading through the media and flying off our tongues before we even know it.

Vox-Office Hits

But a viral quality only partly describes pop language. After all, as William Burroughs said, all language is a virus. Perhaps the better metaphor is that these are celebrity words, the stars of our sentences. Amid the fractured, fuzzy notions and mumbled grunts of everyday verbal intercourse, a snappy catchphrase practically steps out of the limo and onto the red carpet, a confident grin gracing its flash-lit face.

Skillfully applied, the celebrity word can temporarily stun us—much the way seeing a famous person does—and make us more likely to buy whatever it’s saying or selling.

Take George Tenet’s now infamous remark that finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq would be a “slam dunk,” as reported in Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack. On December 21, 2002, Tenet and his top deputy at the CIA, John McLaughlin, went to the Oval Office, where McLaughlin gave a detailed intelligence briefing to Bush, Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card. It’s not clear whether all the charts, photos, and intercepts convinced anyone in the room that Iraqi WMD actually existed. But apparently more to the point, the presentation failed to persuade anyone that the evidence would persuade the public. “In terms of marketing,” Woodward wrote, the briefing was “a flop.” Bush complained that “Joe Public” wouldn’t understand it, and asked, “[T]his is the best we’ve got?” “From the end of one of the couches in the Oval Office,” Woodward continued, “Tenet rose up, threw his arms in the air. ‘It’s a slam dunk case!’ ” he said. Bush asked how confident he was, and the director of the CIA, a Georgetown basketball fan, repeated the arms gesture, saying “Don’t worry, it’s a slam dunk!” Bush later told Woodward that “McLaughlin’s presentation ‘wouldn’t have stood the test of time,’ but Tenet’s reassurance, ‘That was very important.’ ”

Just three weeks later, another pop phrase helped the White House make its case for war in Iraq. Woodward describes the scene in the vice president’s West Wing office on January 11, 2003. The vice president had gathered Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Richard Myers to meet with Bandar bin Sultan, chief representative of the Saudi monarchy in the U.S. and a longtime friend of the Bush family. Bandar was reluctant to use his influence to win the support of Saudi Arabia for the invasion of Iraq without assurances that the U.S. would definitely get rid of Saddam after having failed to do so in 1991.

“What is the chance of Saddam surviving this?” Bandar asked. He believed Hussein was intent on killing everyone involved at a high level with the 1991 Persian Gulf War, including himself.

Rumsfeld and Myers didn’t answer.

“Saddam, this time, will be out, period?” Bandar asked skeptically. “What will happen to him?”

Cheney, who had been quiet as usual, replied, “Prince Bandar, once we start, Saddam is toast.”

. . . “I am convinced now that this is something I can take to my Prince Abdullah,” Bandar said, “and think I can convince him.”

. . . [After Bandar left] Rumsfeld voiced some concern about the vice president’s “toast” remark. “Jesus Christ, what was that all about, Dick?”

“I didn’t want to leave any doubt in his mind what we’re planning to do,” Cheney said.

As the interchanges show, Cheney not only can wield a pop phrase, but he is fully aware of the language’s power and deliberately uses it. All the other props in the scene—the West Wing office, the military brass, even a map of the attack plans marked top secret noforn (meaning no foreigners were supposed to see them)—failed to persuade the prince. But when the Vice President of the United States reached for the same swaggering phrase used by Bill Murray in Ghostbusters to signal an attack on the evil Sumerian goddess Gozer—Murray shouted, “This chick is toast!”—well, that was the kind of talk the Arabian prince could understand.

The impressive thing about international celebrity words is that not only can they create consensus for war, they’re just as useful for the little guy on the homefront. By tossing off It’s show time!, or Who’s your daddy?, or declaring this or that dictator is toast, we can all assert power and attitude. A vocabulary studded with high-profile words allows people to feel special, individualistic, above the crowd—and, simultaneously, very much part of the crowd, drawing power from the knowledge that they’re speaking the same language as millions of other clued-in individuals.

Not all celebrity words are equal, of course. Some famous phrases are Frank Sinatra, resonant and long-lasting; some are Beck, experimental fusion rockers that at one point seemed to sum up the moment; more than a few are Norma Desmond, has-beens that nevertheless have a hold on our imaginations. The popularity and potency of a word—its vox office, you might say—exist on a spectrum.

And let’s not forget that the pop tongue is made up of more than individual phrases. Much of it is structural and damn near indestructible, coming in forms like Top 10 lists, Befores and Afters, quickie quizzes ending in “All of the above,” hyphenated suffixes (-friendly, -driven, -based, -free, -proof, -challenged, -ready, -gate), or (a favorite of mine) hyphenated adjectives, like “veins-popping-out-of-your-skull road rage.” Pop appears in clever deviations from common constructions, as in this late-nineties headline promoting the pistol-packing-chick TV series La Femme Nikita: “36-24-.45.” Or in extremely concise plays on words, like the line that reportedly sold a movie script about a genetically engineered dog running amuck: “Jaws with paws.” And pop arrives purely in rhythms, such as saving the punchiest word or image for the end of a sentence, unlike this one.

In spoken pop, the inflection is often crucial. Sometimes it’s as obvious as a drawn-out syllable and an interrogative note (Hel-lo?!) or a flat affect (Yeah, right). But it may be more complex. A housewife to a “smart” dishwasher in a GE spot: “If you’re so smart, how come you’re doing the dishes?” Dishwasher (with Jack Benny timing): “I hate when she says that.”

And speaking of spoken, whether pop words appear primarily in speech or primarily in writing, they tend to start spoken, like dilio (or dillio or dilly). A kind of ironic, goateed Latino for deal (and as such, on the esoteric side of the pop spectrum), dilio started as spoken, moved to Hollywood (“Jessica, you are the real dilio!” a producer of the Fox show Dark Angel told its star, Jessica Alba, in accepting a People’s Choice Award), but now resides mostly in blogdom. (Dark Angel, meanwhile, was canceled.)

But even if most pop begins as speech, it eventually swings both ways—we write what we say. Duh and I don’t think so, such big oral sluggers, appear in writing because they long ago reached the level of household phrases. When a word has truly arrived, a reader has only to silently supply the right inflection, something you’ll frequently be called upon to do in this book.

Gotcha!

Call me crazy, but I anticipate a few gotchas! from readers.

One is that you’ll catch me discussing phrases that seem passé. And you will, because, along with everything else this book isn’t about, it isn’t about the latest buzzwords or those that are (to use a passé but still pop phrase) on the cutting edge. Even if I were trying to be up to the moment, I couldn’t, since of course I’m writing all this long before it will be published.

But more important, I think that people love to declare a little too much that some catchphrase is hot or not. No one can really know what’s the very latest except within one’s own relatively small circles. When the map is larger, national, what’s so last millennium and what’s the next big thing become an utter blur. Trends overlap, shrink, bulge, and shrink again.

Even people who make a living tracking word usage don’t agree. Yadda, yadda, yadda made it into the 1996 Random House Webster’s College Dictionary because the editor then in charge of new words there, Jesse Sheidlower, was convinced of its staying power, according to The New York Times. But the editor in chief of Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Michael Agnes, found yadda’s usage declining and blocked it. Furthermore, wrote the Times, “when the editors of four dictionaries provided their unabridged new word lists for comparison, there was no overlap.”

Not only is it impossible to always keep up-to-date, but the compulsion to do so can make you look like a fool. In 1992 The New York Times’s Style section published a glossary of what was supposed to be grunge slang. The newest term for a loser, for instance, was “cob nobbler.” “Swingin’ on the flippity flop” meant hanging out. “Tom-Tom Club” was code for uncool outsiders. It was a hoax, the words fabricated by a young record company sales rep in Seattle. When word of the joke got out, the Times editors must have felt like real “lame-stains” (uncool people).

Not only can always riding the cutting edge produce some nasty burns, it’s much less interesting than understanding the long-lasting stuff. Many of our favorite words don’t go out of style so much as, their fifteen minutes of fame past, they become our mental default system—which is exactly what I find intriguing about language that’s pop, whether or not it also happens to be “hot.”

It’s not a word’s freshness date that makes it pop but its degree of persuasive power. Senior pop phrases—like fifteen minutes of fame—may well be clichés, but they still discharge more jolt than nonpop clichés. Whether a phrase is two months old or two hundred years old, whether it’s zesty or mild, it counts as pop in my book as long as most of us and most media rely on its audience-drawing power to sell and persuade.

After all, formerly “hot” terms like chill, dis, and bottom line are still going strong after a generation or two. Gimme a break was no spring chicken when the sitcom Gimme a Break! first aired, in 1981. But in a pinch, it’s still a phrase of choice. Regarding Abu Ghraib, a Newsweek letter to the editor read, “The media are screaming bloody murder after seeing a few prisoners in naked poses? Give me a break.”

No way/Way sounds so 1989 slacker, but its call-and-response rings to this day. In an episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, a woman sees her guy transformed and exclaims, “No way!” The Fab Five, watching her on video, cry in unison, “Way!”

In order to reach such Mick Jaggeresque longevity, pop words may have to endure several phrase phases. If a phrase makes it big, like, for instance, Go for it, it might be followed by a period of soft ridicule for overuse. If it survives that, it wins the right to be repeated, but only with irony (for a while, many of us couldn’t say Go for it any other way). If it survives that, it gets stronger, like a Raid-resistant roach—and it sheds the irony and begins to seem as indispensable as, say, Do the math or 24/7. That is, the phrase becomes a thought, or more accurately, a stand-in for a thought. Given the right circumstances, we almost cannot not say it.

The thrill is gone; been there, done that; same old, same old. But that’s neither here nor there, because if a phrase has the right stuff, it doesn’t merely express an idea, it owns the motha’.

Meanwhile, an entire class of pop phrases exists solely to separate the au courant from the passé. Among the still reasonably vogue phrases that help indicate whether a phrase or a fashion continues to be in vogue are the so’s—so over, so five minutes ago, and so on. I can swear I saw a fashion headline years ago that read, “So Over Is So Over,” but that’s so not true. Half in, half out among the vogue-on-vogue phrases are in/out; That was then, this is now; Same old, same old.

“I’ll write people off if they use a slang expression whose shelf life has expired,” writer Merrill Markoe said in the preface of the 1997 book Buzzwords. “One little ‘been there, done that’ or ‘I give good phone’ and I tune out everything else that person says.” Yet, seven years later, been there was, if not flying off the shelves, still being stocked. “A lot of people feel like, ‘I’ve been there, done that. I’ve met everybody there is to meet. I’ll take a break,’ ” an advertising consultant said about online dating when the trend began to plateau.

On I give good phone, Markoe is right: it’s history. Thousands of phrases, pop or otherwise, serve their purpose and simply die. But I can’t agree with others who declare that it’s history is toast. Toast has more burn and conveys total destruction (which is probably why Cheney chose it to predict Saddam’s fate). But history expresses a finality of its own. Advertising and journalism have found that no one pays attention if you say something is different or changed—the old thing should at least get badly bruised. In a story about changes on the PBS show NOW, The Washington Times wrote, as David Brancacci replaced Bill Moyers, “Then there’s the show’s handsome blue-and-green hued set: It’s history.” Likewise, if we are to believe a spot for the satellite TV company DirecTV, “Cable is history.” Maybe our fixation on “What’s Next” and “Who’s Next” (as publications love to title technology and people stories) prevents us from seeing that history, along with other aging pop, repeats itself, as history does.

The second gotcha! I anticipate is that readers will assume that I assume that we talk this way all the time, when obviously we don’t. Unlike the characters in the movie Clueless, where the comedy turned largely on an overdeveloped fluency in buzz- speak, most of us are not talking pop 24/7. These phrases occur with widely varying frequency, tending to surface when our own individual personality needs a charge from the group one. For many of us that is when we’re trying to impress someone or during an argument: When logic is weak weaponry or is just too difficult to grasp, phrase-fighting busts out. For others, suck or whatever emerges most freely during small talk, or perhaps when speaking with someone you are afraid won’t be stimulated by more pedestrian patter. “Gimme five!” dozens of (white) grandfathers say to young children, though they probably wouldn’t say it to a peer. A good, I don’t know, 93 to 97 percent of the time we don’t talk pop—but looking at why we do when we do and how it affects communication is my focus.

Lastly, readers will see me using many of the buzzwords, inflections, structures, and writers’ tricks of the trade that are this book’s very target, and you might think I’m a hypocrite or just blind to my own dependency on pop language (not to mention more conventional clichés or turns of speech).

Sure, I could claim I sprinkle on the pop in order to illustrate what I’m criticizing. And I do, but that’s only part of it. I’m clearly using some pop as a joke or as an elbow in the ribs. The reasons for the rest of it may not be so clear because I may not be aware of it myself—it has slipped under my radar. Some phrases, like slipped under my radar, are just so ingrained and right to the point that I figure, Why fight them?

It is difficult to speak without some pop in the voice. I can no more completely avoid it than I can avoid the phrases and rhythms that most every parent uses with a baby (“Are you my boy?” “Who’s the silly willy?”), a language that is nearly universal because the impulses are.

But it is also true that I’m just as determined to entertain you as most writers are. We try to hide the premeditation of it all with the breezy tone that’s encoded in the pop vocabulary. After all, if we don’t immediately connect, if we don’t use words that push your buttons, we fear we will bore you and not get assignments.

In fact, noticing my own strong temptation to use these phrases, in writing and speech, is what made me want to write about them in the first place. What is their pull on me, and why do I resist? (My resistance, at least, probably has something to do with where I grew up as a teenager: a spanking new subdivision in suburban St. Louis that was named—because the developers didn’t bulldoze every sapling in sight—Nottingham Among the Trees.)

And while we’re on the subject of me, I should lay out my prejudices: There are some pop locutions that I like and others I bristle at every time. As you might by now suspect, I like road rage but hate I don’t think so. (Maybe because I believe a lot of road rage is caused by people who say I don’t think so.) There are phrases I wish I could stop using, but can’t, like like, you know, while others I feel ridiculous saying, like cool. Blah, blah, blah—can’t think without it; I find it funny and oddly cozy. Yadda, yadda, yadda, however, won’t leave my lips. I have a soft spot for, and a dependency on, pop words that describe aspects of pop culture (and that seem to come in couplets): sound bite, shelf life, shrink-wrapped, industrial-strength, freeze-dried, freeze-frame, and flash-freeze. Essential to writing this book is dumb down—it is a box outside of which I cannot think. But other words of this ilk, such as phone tag and wiggle room, are just too cute for moi. The culture is one that I, and many writers, are embarrassingly addicted to.

And so it is definitely a self-conscious challenge to write about overused locutions while using some myself. I’m torn between wanting to write in lively, accessible language and cringing at the possibility that I’m digging those thought grooves a little deeper.

There’s no completely avoiding pop language, because it goes beyond the words themselves. It evolves from the way the world works—in any era, the popular language is the most powerful means of persuasion we can collectively dream up, and I will use it to try to persuade you that I shouldn’t always use it to persuade you.

This dilemma should lead, throughout the book, to a look at the very nature of language: Is everything we say a semi- programmed turn of speech? Are new combinations of old idioms the only original forms of speech left to us? How does one communicate without resorting to the words and rhythms of the moment?

But first, the biggest gotcha!: Wasn’t it always thus?


From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents

PROLOGUE
Are We Having Fun Yet?

CHAPTER 1
Here’s the Deal

CHAPTER 2
Pop Talk Is History

CHAPTER 3
What’s Black, Then White, and Said All Over?

CHAPTER 4
Don’t Even Think About Telling Me “I Don’t Think So”: The Media, Meanness, and Me

CHAPTER 5
The Great American Yesss!

CHAPTER 6
Populist Pop and the Regular Guy

CHAPTER 7
The Community of Commitment-Centered Words

CHAPTER 8
Digital Talk in the Unit States of America

EPILOGUE
It’s Like, You Know, the End

Notes
Bibliography
Acknowledgments
Index
Permissions Acknowledgments
Leslie Savan|Author Q&A|Author Desktop

About Leslie Savan

Leslie Savan - Slam Dunks and No-Brainers

Photo © Jerry Bauer

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 in criticism in 1991, 1992, and 1997. In 1996 she was named one of "The Top Ten Media Heroes" by the Institute for Alternative Journalism. She has been a commentator for Fresh Air and has appeared on the ABC and CBS national newscasts, NPR, and The O'Reilly Factor. She has written for The New York Times, Time, The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, Mademoiselle, and Salon, among other publications. Her essays have been reprinted in numerous textbooks and anthologies. Her previous book, The Sponsored Life: Ads, TV, and American Culture, is a collection of her columns.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Leslie Savan

Q: What was it about the way Americans talk that inspired you to write this book?
 
A: I used to write a column about advertising for the Village Voice, and I started to notice that certain words and phrases kept popping up in ads. I don’t mean obvious ad lines like “new and improved,” but the more subtle stuff, like stuff, no-brainer, Yesss!, Hey, You're goood, outside the box, wake-up call, the name Bob. They were there, too, in sitcoms, reality TV, blogs, movies, corporate Web sites, Senate repartee, conversations I’d overhear, and my own mouth. Wherever these words were used and regardless of their context, they seemed to work as punchlines—as if they came with built-in applause signs and laugh tracks. And if inflected properly, they could usually pull attention and consensus their way, just like really persuasive ads do. I started to think of these phrases as a kind of universal sales solvent, one that could sell cars, political arguments, and, in this age of personal branding, ourselves.


Q: You differentiate between pop language and slang. Please explain.
 
A: Pop language includes a lot of slang, but pop is much more than that. Some pop phrases, like bling bling or fashionista, are technically slang, which is usually defined as “non-standard” and probably transient language. But most pop speech today is made up of perfectly ordinary and permanent words, like Who’s your daddy or Don’t go there.

Pop, by definition, is not jargon either. Unlike the various jargons that bind relatively small groups, be they 12-year-old skateboarders or Big Pharma lobbyists, true pop pops for everyone, regardless of age, race, class, region, or occupation.

Whether a phrase starts as slang, jargon, or just a grouping of ordinary words pronounced with attitude, it doesn’t become a pop phrase unless it gets picked up by a mass audience. You might think of these phrases as the contestants on American Idol. To get votes from viewers and the thumbs-up from the panel of copywriters and scriptwriters, the words not only have to skillfully hit all the familiar notes, but they have to evince some glamour. If they continue to win media exposure, and if they express something the wider public wants expressed, these phrases, no matter where they’re from, will step out into the spotlight as celebrity words, the stars of our sentences.

You could also say (I do) that pop eats slang for breakfast. Pop words are not only more famous, powerful, and sales savvy than slang and other turns of speech, but pop is constantly digesting new expressions to keep itself sounding fresh and “different.”


Q: Haven’t people always used catchphrases?
 
A: You’re spot on. Extremely popular speech and snappy phrases run throughout history. During the early nineteenth century, for instance, London was gaga over What a shocking bad hat!, There he goes with his eye out!, and Flare-up!, expressions that were the cat’s meow for months or years and then vanished.
 
But catchphrases play a different role in our lives today than they have in the past, and that is largely because of the extraordinarily rapid growth of various media, especially over the last 50 years. With more media vying more ferociously for the attention of people who are busier and more distracted than ever, media and marketing more desperately need language that stops us in our tracks, that temporarily stuns us–much like seeing a famous person does–and makes us more likely to buy whatever it’s saying or selling. Similarly, regular people need more kick-butt language to cut through the clutter of other people’s messages. A correctly delivered Stick a fork in him–he’s done or step up to the plate can position us in ways we hope to be seen. Pre-packaged, pre-tested mass words, especially if they sound spontaneous and robustly individualistic, are useful time-saving devices. Or, to put that in pop: These phrases are our go-to guys.
 

Q: Where do pop words and phrases come from? You write about the influence of black American vernacular language, for instance.
 
A: The media distribute phrases and make them more glamorous, but relatively few pop phrases actually begin life in an ad agency or on a TV show, as Wendy’s Where’s the beef? and Homer Simpson’s D’oh! have. By and large, pop language originates among “real people” trying to express something previously not expressed. The source of a particular buzzphrase may be prom queen or drag queen, boardroom or locker room, but as often as not the source is black. From the days of slavery on through jive, jazz, rock’n’roll, and now hip hop, African Americans have influenced the speech that went on to become pop more than any other group of people. Some black-inspired phrases we speak with an implicit nod to their source, like my bad, You the man, You go, girl, street cred, while others we think of as almost sourceless, like 24/7, lame, in your face, or, the preeminent pop word of all time, cool.

But the black influence on American speech goes beyond individual words. As an often playful, ironic alternative to the standard tongue, black slang has prefigured pop language in much the same way that black music has prefigured, and has often become, pop music. In fact, as the official unofficial speech of America, black talk is the prime reason for pop talk’s crush on everything “alternative” and “outsider.” White attempts to yo here and dis there, or to replace an “s” with a “z” to better sell brandz, are an important piece of identity-and-image building for individuals and corporations alike. It may seem twisted, given American history, but today, the language of an excluded people is repeated by the non-excluded in order to automatically sound more included.


Q: When are we most likely to employ pop language?
 
A: When we’re under duress. Or when we’re defending our social turf. Or when we’re angry and just want to roll up the window of our SUV on the frustrations of everyday life. Instead of thinking, we grab the nearest item from the arsenal of peevish put-downs: Don’t even think about it, What part of “no” don’t you understand?, Yeah, right, and, my pet peeve phrase, I don’t think so–and we immediately start to feel more in control. These kinds of comebacks are also pop in the sense of “I’ll pop you one!” We’re tempted so many times a day to fall into a dismissive pique that we’ve even turned nice words, like hello, please, and excuse me, into their evil, easily offended twins: Hel-lo?!, Puh-leeze!, Ex-CUSE me?. Loaded with killer inflections, these licensed weapon words chop down any and all assaults on the sensitive modern ego.

What gives these words their clout is that we can sense a crowd, a crowd of millions, standing behind them. We hear too much information, your worst nightmare, or duh, and we immediately sense the power structure of the moment.
 

Q: Pop language has even entered the arena of war. For example, in a meeting with Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia before the invasion of Iraq, Dick Cheney said, “Saddam is toast.” What are we to make of such statements?
 
A: According to Bob Woodward’s book Plan of Attack, Dick Cheney, defense secretary Rumsfeld, and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Myers held a high-level meeting with Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia to convince him to use his influence to win Saudi support for an invasion. But Bandar was afraid that the U.S. would fail to get rid of Saddam; after all, Saddam remained unscathed after the 1991 Gulf War. It wasn’t until the vice president of the United States reached for the same swaggering phrase used by Bill Murray in Ghostbusters to signal an attack on the evil Sumerian goddess—Murray shouted, “This chick is toast!”—that Bandar agreed to get the go-ahead from the Saudi crown prince.
 
More infamously in the lead up to the war, CIA director George Tenet assured President Bush, Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and chief-of-staff Andrew Card that finding Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction would be a “slam dunk.” Tenet’s deputy had just presented a detailed White House briefing on WMDs, but it failed to convince anybody. Then, according to Woodward, Tenet rose up from a couch and said, “It’s a slam dunk case!” The Georgetown basketball fan repeated the remark—this time saying, “Don’t worry, it’s a slam dunk!”—and the mood in the Oval Office shifted from doubt to confidence. Nothing, I think, better shows the persuasive power of pop: It can squelch dissent and corral consensus even in the face of war and the deaths of thousands.

Q: Although we use pop phrases to attack each other, we also use more earnest-sounding pop language, what you call “commitment-centered words.” Is this the language of good citizenship, or is it just touchy-feely?
 
A: To some extent, no one will believe you are a good citizen unless you lay on the touchy-feely talk, and use words like empowerment, inclusiveness, or, as a banner strung across a street in a downtrodden New Jersey town read, “LET’S TAKE A PROACTIVE APPROACH FOR COMMUNITY WELLNESS.” Many people want to do good and help out, but instead we often just recite some pre-programmed words that’ve had all the life flattened out of them. This way we don’t have to think about the “thoughtful” things we’re talking about.
 
Because this language is so associated with altruism, it can disarm our skepticism and is a favorite of commercial interests, like those companies that speak solemnly about “giving back to the community” (after they’ve pretty well bulldozed it).
 
This sort of language has also been called psychobabble, doublespeak, bureaucratese; often it's just lumped together as “politically correct,” which itself is often doublespeak for “liberal.” In truth, though, the right uses PC pop about as much as the supposedly Birkenstock left. The right also talks about finding “closure,” about “sharing” one’s travails, and, in accusing the non-faith-based of bad faith, the right came up with the most curious PC phrase of 2004: “the reality-based community.”
 
Q: How can we manage the role that pop language plays in our daily communication without being overly self-conscious?
 
A: In keeping with the last question, I’m going to be as transparent and accountable as possible here: I’m not sure. There is no easy—that is, pop—answer. I hate to say it, but you have to listen to yourself and be aware. It is indeed a thin line between being aware and being overly self-conscious. But if you step back with a little detachment and a bit of humor, you can probably spot the telltale signs that you and the media you dwell in are becoming too hooked on pop: Do you sniff out a sales component in the language? Do you ever get a sour taste in your mouth from your own ironic comebacks? Do you secretly hope your words are playing to a phantom crowd? Do you ever use popular phrases to do the thinking for you–or, hey, to step up to the plate and cover your back when you don’t have the answer to a hard question?


From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

From six-year-old Yu-gi-oh! fans to officials high in the Bush administration, we all talk pop. Of course, for some people, understanding the fine points of pop speech is a no-brainer; for others, not so much.

To test your pop chops, take the following quiz and find out if you're ready for prime-time or need to get with the program.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“A sharp . . . analysis of the phenomenon Savan calls pop language. . . . Inspired.” –The New York Times"Savvy and entertaining. . . . The range of influences on pop talk is astonishing." –The Seattle Times“A super-smart explanation of modern pop vocabulary . . . studded with observational gems and conversational jams.” –The Miami Herald"Entertaining. . . . From a crisp etymology of the word cool to an articulate defense of the word like. . . . A highly readable story about rhetoric and American culture." –Time Out New York

Awards

WINNER New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age

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