The dictionary frowns on words it snootily labels “informal.” Teachers and newspaper copy editors carry a grudge against slang. Nearly everyone recoils from jargon. But according to a new book irresistibly titled “Slam Dunks and No-Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and, Like, Whatever,” language purists now have another whole class of words to fret about: “pop words.”
According to the author, former Village Voice columnist Leslie Savan, pop words are slang or edgily informal expressions that have gone mainstream, thanks to their adoption by the powerful. When politicians, pundits, columnists, corporate advertisers and television scriptwriters talk breezily about “crunching the numbers” or “getting a life,” being “on the cutting edge” or “thinking outside the box,” they are not — in Ms. Savan’s view — really using slang, since everyone understands what they are saying.
Slang is niche speech, whether of the street or of the boardroom. Jargon is the slang of specialists. A snappy pop vocabulary, in contrast to both, is simply the lingua franca of much of America. (Other English-speaking countries have their own versions, but Hollywood-driven expressions have popped up all over the planet. People from Tokyo to Tehran know what a “bad hair day” is, or the importance of “doing the math.”)
According to Ms. Savan, a command of pop words is not just respectable nowadays, it is virtually a prerequisite for getting people’s attention. The shorter the sweeter. By pop standards, even Abraham Lincoln’s legendarily brief Gettysburg Address sounds long-winded. (We “don’t do” rhetoric so much anymore. It’s out of our “comfort zone.” We have “issues” with it.) This is not always a bad thing.
Pop speech can be attractive, lending a touch of pizzazz to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative, to paraphrase the immortal Gilbert and Sullivan. Ms. Savan herself admits that “when these words and phrases start out “they can be creative acts of art, sheer poetry.”
Most of us will remember the little zing of admiration we felt the first time we heard someone say, “Been there, done that.” Or “Too much information!”
Or “Don’t get me started.” Or “What part of [fill in the blank] don’t you understand?” The lines sounded so smart and fresh it was no surprise that they caught on. Pretty soon, everyone was repeating them. End of freshness.
But smartness took a hit, too. The clever zingers turned into handy substitutes for real cleverness. The biggest problem with pop speech, as Ms. Savan points out, is the danger it poses to complex thinking. It’s easier to fall back on a zippy phrase than to tease out an original thought, too tempting to retort, “Yeah, right!” rather than mount a reasoned argument.
The most notorious recent example of the use of a pop phrase to squelch nuance and quash debate is probably the one showcased in the book’s title. When White House officials, including President George W. Bush, worried that the American public might have doubts about intelligence provided to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003, then-CIA director George Tenet famously assured them, “It’s a slam-dunk case!”
It wasn’t, as we now know. But it was sold as such, in a classic deployment of glib pop-speak, and the bloody consequences are still unfolding.
Before that, there was the great pop-speak putdown delivered by U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas to Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana, his opponent in the 1988 vice presidential debate, after Mr. Quayle had compared his congressional experience to John F. Kennedy’s. “I knew Jack Kennedy,” Mr. Bentsen declared. “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” It was a devastating response, from which Mr. Quayle never really recovered, despite going on to become George H.W. Bush’s vice president. Unfortunately, the locution “You’re no [whoever]” has become a standard — and usually unfair — way of belittling and muffling an opponent.
Such anecdotes make the case for a book like “Slam Dunks and No-Brainers.” It doesn’t much matter whether the trendy cliches it discusses are classified as pop words or slang or something else entirely. It’s the examples themselves that are instructive. You start watching for them, on television, in newspapers and magazines, in your own writing. You develop a pop-word sensitivity meter. And the bell starts going off nonstop: “Whassup?” Ding. “Don’t go there.” Ding. “That is so five years ago.” Ding. Even “ding” has a pop-word equivalent. Nowadays, it’s “Ka-ching!” — tellingly enough, the sound of a cash register ringing up a sale.
People won’t stop using pop words; they’re too handy and too much fun. But it wouldn’t hurt any of us to cut back. Less, as they say, is more. End of story.
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