November 16, 2012
It is a tiny word, two letters, no Qs or Zs involved, hardly worthy of using in a Scrabble game. It is meant, I believe, to be a joiner, an explainer, a mover-along-er of a story. It was never meant to be a starter and filler-in-er. Never a starter. Never like a yawn, a pause, all those things it has become reduced to now.
Garrison Keillor did a funny bit with the word recently in one of his monologues. He said, "She finally had to divorce him. Said it was a myriad of little things that just added up. The last straw was that he had started every sentence using the word, ‘So.’"
You’ve noticed, maybe even slipped down the slippery, lazy slope yourself. Heard journalists use it. I looked this week at a video produced by The New York Times, yes, the venerable Old Gray Lady. Two young women reporters were talking about who might replace Timothy Geithner as the Treasury Secretary. The first reporter started her inquiry with "So, yadda yadda," to which the second young woman replied, "So, blah blah blah." There were several other "so’s" filling the air to serve as connectors or pauses, when smart connections would have been so welcomed and a genuine pause would have been a genuine relief.
It mystifies me how some word or expression becomes a meme. No one really knows where it starts but everyone is soon victim to it. A few years ago it was "gotcha." It was as ubiquitous as the Hummers on Main Street, the UGG boots during Sundance, the "yo’s" spoken by yoyos who had never seen the inside of a tough neighborhood except on a movie screen. Wearing a knit hat on your head does not a gangsta make.
You would call, say, for a dinner reservation and the hostess would say "Gotcha" when you asked what time the restaurant opened, "Gotcha" before she responded with the time, perhaps 5 p.m. Then you ask to have a party of six seated at 7 and as the hostess would confirm what you had asked for, she would respond, "Gotcha." And you would read your credit card to hold that reservation and when you reached the end of the numerical sequence, you would be met with "Gotcha."
I know a woman, a very grown-up professional woman, who learns a new word and can’t help herself when she uses it to excess for a month or more nonstop. One year everything and everyone had a certain "cachet." The style of a car, the decor of a building, the way someone dressed, probably the flavor of a Starbucks coffee. I don’t remember all the ways she wore out that word. Until she met the word "seminal" — which described the importance of the last book she read, film she saw, conversation she had, vote called for by the Senate, meal she ate. You get the idea. When she called for "metrics" to be used to measure everything from workplace evaluations to friendship criteria, we knew we were in trouble. Or, as we heard soon after, there was a "delta" in the information we shared. A "delta" in behavior and budgets and time left to solve a problem. When a "concern" or "alert" or even "issue" would have sufficed.
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For those who love language and the endless, creative ways it can be used, hearing folks with verbal tics can be worse than a fingernail on a chalkboard, which usually is a brief, unpleasant noise. Words that scratch your sensibilities can go on and on and on. Like a phone message, which instead of saying, "Hello, this is Sam and I wanted to ask you to dinner this evening," you hear, "Hey, Sam here, wanna grab a bite tonight?" and while you understand the sentiment, you wonder if the caller wanted to be so casual or wanted to be cool or just was repeating the style of language he thought was the currency of the day. I don’t know when "Hey" replaced "Hello," but when it came to me as the subject line in emails from professional national candidates this season, I hesitated to open the email, even though I supported the party.
"Hey" I wanted to say, "if you really want to have my attention, say ‘hello,’ ‘good morning,’ or ‘I need to have your attention,’ which would have received my attention."
How we say what we say can immediately endear us to our listeners or annoy them so completely it will be difficult for them to regain their focus.
It seems a bit fussy to talk about how we talk about things, but communicating is actually something we are doing more frequently with all our digital devices. And the language has been reduced to single letters representing full words and icons representing expressions of moods.
With more communication, we may have reduced the intimacy of conversation. Which is an art. Which requires thoughtful responses, not always quick retorts that are rote. Because a quick retort from a beautiful mind, using language in a way that demonstrates an understanding of the nuances of tone and style, is a beautiful thing.
This week, try to listen to your words. How they represent you. Are they unique to your personality or are they co-opted from other places? Your voice is unique. Listen to it. Listen for it. Let it serve you as a proud representative of your personality and your grasp of the intricacies of a rich language. Talk pretty. Every day, especially Sunday in the Park.
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.