Magazine article USA TODAY

What Did You Say?

Magazine article USA TODAY

What Did You Say?

Article excerpt

WELCOME to the all-American speechfest, where the English language is muddied daily. Such speech can be heard even from individuals who concern themselves with the impression they make on others.

American English is an incomparably broad, vigorous, versatile, mutable tongue that can withstand an unintended daily pummeling by millions of those who speak it. This mistreatment is not necessarily the result of low educational attainment and socioeconomic status. A large measure of genuine democracy can be heard in our speech. Colloquial damage is in evidence everywhere from the burger joint to the corporate boardroom. During a recent television interview, the editor-in-chief of a prominent, respected magazine founded long ago concluded a sentence with "eksetera" rather than "et cetera."

More of the same misbegotten examples of usage now are heard nationwide than ever before. Many of these can be traced to the superabundance of communication found in modern American life. Unprecedented exposure to the broadcast media, incessant cell phone use, and increased population mobility have led to greater homogeneity of speech. When some individuals do not fully comprehend the meaning of a word, they sometimes attach another word implicit in the first to ensure their point is made through unintentional redundancy. Common words are repeated endlessly without significance. We also hear sounds in widespread use that do not correspond with words as written, but are derivatives of them. Proceeding further from Standard English, sounds are uttered that are not words at all, but usually resemble existing vocabulary closely enough that we recognize them. Such speech can amuse or irritate the listener.

Regardless of their circumstances, people want very much to be considered credible. Some hasten to assure one that something is a "true fact." Does that mean something can be a "false fact"? Some individuals attempt to persuade one that something is "very unique." The object in question either is one of a kind or not. These redundant attempts at emphasis serve no purpose other than proclaiming that the speaker has an indistinct notion of the meaning of "fact" and "unique."

American speech is saturated with the word "like." If repeated, inappropriate use of any word can make one's intellectual processes seem lethargic, this is it. This tired and tiresome relic of beatnik-hippie usage suggests inability to express thought clearly, as well as detachment from reality. It has overtones of living in a drug-induced stupor, as did some of the original abusers of the word. Follow it with the interjection "wow," and one will sound like both a contemporary and a companion of Cheech and Chong. (At least they were comical.)

"You know" also is an unwelcome intruder into untold millions of sentences heard every day, and sometimes is used as a sentence itself. It is the runner-up to "like" in verbal monotony. It is a feeble attempt to compel understanding and empathy in the listener, you know. It commonly is part of a reference made to something the speaker assumes is known to the listener. It has, regrettably, crept into the public utterances and responses of otherwise facile public figures, up to and including Pres. Barack Obama. (No doubt the President sometimes consciously adds this echo of the vox populi.) Reiteration of the same few words in conversation, however, becomes quite tiresome. This word is repeated incessantly by those who think it can increase the impact and assure listeners of the veracity of what they are saying.

The use of "awesome" as a speech staple first was noted among California's Valley Girls. It frequently seems to be the only adjective these adolescents know to describe something good or impressive. "Awesome" often is preceded by "totally," another mainstay of so-called Valspeak. "Totally" habitually is applied to descriptive adjectives in an attempt to enhance them. It commonly is overused alone, much favored over other adverbs such as "absolutely," "completely," "entirely," or "wholly," as in "I totally agree with you. …

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