Friday, May 9, 2014


According to linguistics professor Henry Higgins in Lerner and Lowe's "My Fair Lady," Americans haven't spoken the English language in years. If that’s what he thought fifty-eight years ago, what would he say today, given the proliferation of fillers, phrase and sentence reductions, techno-words, and the loss of words indicative of a civil society.      
Fillers are words that carry no meaning but are added to sentences to give speakers time to grope for words and collect their thoughts.   Some of today’s popular fillers include: you know, so, like, and uh (“uh” is the filler of choice for the over-fifty crowd).  I was recently subjected to a “like” speaker at a public lecture.  After some minutes, I became more interested in the number of times he said “like” in a minute than I was in what he had to say.  I made a tally.
At 30 minutes, the lecturer had said “like” 180 times. At thirty-one minutes, I left the room.  The speaker was either unprepared, dishonest, or under the influence of his teenage children.  Possibly all three.
          But don’t think that filler abusers are limited to a particular age, social, or professional group.  They’re not.  They’re everywhere.  President Obama in an NBC interview in August of 2013 used “you know” 43 times.  Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein said “you know” 84 times in a 2010 CNN interview, but the filler trophy goes to Caroline Kennedy, who, in a New York Times interview in 2008 said “you know” 142 times.  For your reading pleasure, a part of that interview is below:
"So I think in many ways, you know, we want to have all kinds of different voices, you know, representing us, and I think what I bring to it is, you know, my experience as a mother, as a woman, as a lawyer, you know.  I've been an education activist for the last six years here, and, you know, I've written seven books.... so obviously, you know, we have ....”
One of the many negative consequences of the electronic age is the public’s increasing impatience.  Our attention span has diminished.  Everyone wants everything fast -- and faster yet -- including language, both written and spoken.  This need for speed has led to the reduction of frequently-used phrases into single words and  abbreviations, such as: do it yourself (DIY), oh my God (OMG), laughing out loud (LOL), best friends forever (BFF), living alone together (LAT), and by the way (BTW) --to name just a few.  E-mails and texts are often truncated, and it’s not uncommon to receive messages such as: “PLZ 4GIVE ALL ERROZ.” (No wonder people can’t spell anymore!)   
But why worry? This trunc8ing of words and phrases in2 letters & symbols will probably die off B4 long.  That’s what happened to the once popular SWAK (sealed with a kiss), written on the backs of envelopes containing social letters and thank you notes.  And if SWAK hadn’t died its natural death, then it would have been pushed into its grave by a modern culture that doesn’t write letters or send thank you notes, much less ever addressed an envelope.          
Technological changes have led to the birth of many words which have, in turn, influenced the popular culture – words like “selfie.”  Selfies are photos people take of themselves on their smart phones, often including one, two, or a dozen of their BFFs. Actor James Franco eloquently explains the joy of selfies in a recent Instagram post:
… “sharing a very (sic) kind of intimate portrait…it’s almost like (sic) it’s connected to you putting intimate space out there.  It’s a kind (sic) of this new thing we’re getting used to.” 
   It’s good to know that narcissists like Franco can – in a matter of minutes – take photos of their private parts and make them public.  Of course, if he learns that his phone’s been tapped or that Big Brother is monitoring his library withdrawals (assuming he can read), he’ll be the first to scream bloody murder for invasion of privacy.       
            President Obama recently one-upped Franco with a selfie ménage a trois at President Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Not only did this photo set a new low in funeral behavior, it led to the creation of the term "funeral selfie." Selfies, in turn, have given birth to "shelfies," self-appointed harbingers of good taste, who arrange their "art collections" on shelves, then photograph and send them into the blogosphere for the world to see.  The photo below of the two guinea pigs (stuffed, I hope) is an example.    

Other new words include twerking, which means provocative dancing  (What was wrong with the more descriptive term “dirty dancing?”), bitcoin,  wackadoodle,  bestie, and honey jar (I guess it takes too long to say “a jar of honey.”)  Although the “F” word has been around forever, it is now being used in new and different ways.  Traditionally a verb and expletive, it’s also used as a filler, an adjective, adverb, gerund, noun, and pronoun.   We hear Fs all day long: in the media (written and broadcast), in musical lyrics, on TV, in the streets, at the movies, and out of the mouths of babes.  The F word is spoken 500 times in the movie The Wolves of Wall Street (That’s almost three F’s per minute.) and F is proudly displayed on t-shirts, tattoos, coffee mugs, and billboards.   
While thousands of new words are added to the lexicon each year, others  --symbolic  of a civil society -- are disappearing from use, like: please, thank you, excuse me, and you’re welcome.  “You're welcome" is being replaced with "no problem," which is counterintuitive because if I thought “whatever” was going to be a problem, I wouldn’t have asked in the first place.     
            Yes, I’m a cynic, but believe it or not, I’m also an optimist and am confident that a future cadre of literate, intelligent, and independent thinkers will rise to stem the tide of language abuse and its negative impact on human communication.  An example of such a person is Hannah Barnett, a high school junior from Chevy Chase, MD, who recently wrote in a class essay: 

"Please put down the selfie camera on your IPhone.  A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but that doesn't justify taking millions of selfies in lieu of having a real conversation.  It comes to the point that we are now photographing ourselves doing nothing worthy of a photograph. We are documenting ourselves documenting ourselves.  More and more, I feel as if we get dressed up to do fun stuff just so we can put it on social media and let other people see that we're dressed up and doing fun stuff!  .... I beg you.  Put down your phones, make eye contact with me, and let's talk."
That student, by the way, is my Granddaughter, and that’s nothing to whine about! 
                                                       Whiningly yours, Carol


  1. One of your best yet! I'd forgotten about SWAK!!! I used to write that one the letters I would write to my cousin in the army in Germany, and my grandmother :) Actually, I wouldn't mind if that one resurfaced...on the back of real written note that I could retrieve from my mailbox. When do you suppose those will become extinct?!#@

  2. I enjoyed today's post and agree with every single word. Sometimes figuring out a message is like deciphering the meaning of a vanity license plate! Congratulations to Hannah for her well-written essay.

  3. Spot on as usual. Although twerking is a specific kind of dirty dancing....