Thursday, October 7, 2010

Through words, you become an architect of your own reality

Whatever.  I’m talkin’ an essay that, best-case scenario, takes no prisoners as it puts its ass on the line, kicks some butt, walks the walk, produces some roadkill, and gives 110 percent to explain that even though pop words rock, they, like, really suck.  Oh, they sound smart, but, trust me, I’m going to step up, break ‘em down, and show you they ain’t called no-brainers for nothing. 

With the exception of the word “essay” which I substituted for her word “book,” these words come from the prologue to Leslie Savan’s Slam Dunks and No-Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and, Like, Whatever (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005)—a brilliant, well-documented, extremely well-written book based upon her thirteen years of writing a column about advertising and commercial culture for The Village Voice. 

If you are like me you are feeling immersed (submerged?) in a world of popular catchwords, buzzphrases, and quickie concepts that Americans seem unable to communicate without using.  This verbal kudzu tells more about how we think than we think.   There is no doubt that many of these words and phrases—when used in the proper context—pack rhetorical oomph and social punch, but, as Savan notes, “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 (pp. 10-11).” 

“Movie talk,” according to Savan, “suffers not so much from a dearth of good writers but from the assumption of producers and writers, bolstered by market research, that flattering and exciting audiences is more profitable than challenging them (p. 119).”  In the same way, the language drawn from the media—in this case movies—creates a physical sensation, often the pleasant one of numbing out—zingers offered for the sake of the zing, not for hard truths and obdurate realities. 

The main problem with catchwords, buzzphrases, and quickie concepts is that they are simply a form of entertainment that anyone can perform.  They connect people instantly and can keep conversations bobbing with humor and liveliness, but they work against taking ourselves seriously.  They are accessible, but they reveal no depth.   They are easy to understand, easygoing, and pleasant, but there is no substance attached to them.   Pop language is fun, useful, and free in the same way that advertising-supported media is fun, useful, and “free,” but there are obvious trade-offs, and the most important one is thought replacement.  “Repeated and mentally applauded over years,” Savan writes, “pop language carves tunnels that ideas expressed otherwise are too fat to fit through (p. 13).” 

The perfect metaphor for the effect that pop language has on communication is the way that people’s clothes and their delivery style commands the attention of listeners far and above anything communicators might say.  Using catchwords, buzzphrases, and quickie concepts, whatever points communicators make gain acceptance not on their merits but on how familiarly they are presented and how efficiently listeners’ tongues snap into grooves.  It is as if these phrases are themselves “no-brainers.”  Buzz-loaded repertoire displaces thinking with a pleasant buzz!  Truth drowned in a sea of irrelevance! 

There is true value in using catchwords, buzzphrases, and quickie concepts.  For example, high-profile words allow listeners “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 others clued-in individuals,” writes Savan (p. 17).  The word, phrase, or concept becomes a thought, or more accurately, a stand-in for a thought. 

Savan sums up this idea, using the appropriate catchwords and buzzphrases, saying, “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’ (p. 20).” 

“Phrases like these aren’t just cliches.  They’re more like a bad case of televisionary Tourett’s—involuntary, canned punch lines that bring the rhythms of sitcom patter into everyday experience,” writes Savan. 

Human communication holds greater possibilities than catchwords, buzzphrases, and quickie concepts, but this pop language is not designed to plumb life’s mysteries.  Rather, it establishes the fact that users recognize and can characterize any pre-characterized thing or situation.  If people can produce the right phrase at the right time, it reassures them that they are awake and can connect. 

Even more important than being awake and connecting, catchwords, buzzphrases, and quickie concepts come with built-in applause signs and laugh tracks.  They are a direct reflection of our entertainment culture—whether it is movies, television, or the Internet—and being absorbed in this culture creates commercial-flavored norms that shape values and expectations.  “And keeping us on track,” writes Savan, “they provoke in us click responses, the sort of electronic-entertainment tic we twitch and jerk with more often lately (p. 12).” 

Again, borrowing from Savan’s prologue, “You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to see that too much pop is totally lame-o.  But what if a rocket scientist just doesn’t get it and refuses to opt out?  What if he hollers, ‘Pop words rule!”? 

“No prob:,” Savan writes, “I’ll grab him by the lapels, jerk him around, yank his chain, bust his chops, rattle his cage, push his buttons, hang him out to dry, and let him twist slowly, slowly in the wind.  Oh, he’ll be one sick puppy, and he won’t be a happy camper.  He might even throw a hissy fit.  But here’s the beauty part: He’ll get with the program (p. 8).” 

“Our language puts blinders on us,’ says linguist Robin Lakoff, author of The Language War.  “The way we construct language influences the way we see reality, and reality influences language.”  Students of all ages need to be involved in language-rich environments so they can be sure of words, find alternatives to catchwords, buzzphrases, and quickie concepts, and become, through their words, architects of their own realities.


Sarah White writes a short essay, “The Power of Language,” at the website I’m So Corporate, which nicely explains how powerful it can be. 

At TeachingK-8,  Mary Ellen Bafumo has written a thorough, clear, and interesting essay on “The power of language.”  She is a Program Director for the Council on Educational Change, an Annenberg legacy group, and divides her essay into three parts: 1) Language inspires us, 2) Language Moves Us to Action, and 3) Language has power.  Under the third category she offers 10 specific ways to develop power through the use of language. 


Copyright October, 2010, by And Then Some Publishing, LLC.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! I'm going to leverage this column looking for the long tail in hopes of being proactive while providing leverage for a synergistic paradigm shift. Then, I'll regurgitate it all in a technicolor yawn.


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