by Tom Garrison
© 2017 Tom Garrison
As any student of English knows, it is a dynamic language. Words and phrases are borrowed from other languages, sometimes to add a bit of gravitas (Latin), sometimes for a mardi gras (French) sort of fun. Slang contributes contemporary words and phrases, rooting English speakers in the here and now. Some, such as the genial “what’s up?” are incorporated into the lexicon, others like “23 skidoo” fade away as short term fads. And let’s not overlook technology’s contribution—fifty years ago using words like Facebook, email, and skype would have warranted strange looks.
As a published writer, I enjoy the flexibility English provides. Hell, sometimes I make up my own words (look for it later) that readers understand immediately. However, some recent additions to the language add nothing except distortion and an abdication of personal responsibility, avoiding the consequences of ones’ words.
Let’s examine the popular. “I’m just sayin’.” We have all been exposed to the long dissertation on how we are wrong about something or subject to a list of our character flaws. Tacking on “I’m just sayin’ ” at the end does not soften the blow and is cowardly. The user seems to think this phrase is a get out of language/personal responsibility jail free card allowing nastiness with no consequences. The phrase is meant to somehow magically remove offensiveness of the previous statement. Do we really need a new phrase enabling snarkiness? The next time you are subject to “I’m just sayin’ ” you might want to reply “I know, and I’m ‘just responding’ to what feels like an insult.”
Another of my personal favorites is “whatever.” While this can meekly affirm a previous statement, its most prevalent use is to be dismissive and express indifference. Most often the true meaning is “What you are saying is really stupid.” The part left unsaid is “… but I can’t muster up a decent reply due to my inability to utilize rational thought.” Upon hearing “whatever” you might catch me rolling my eyes out loud.
Early examples of “whatever” include a 1965 episode of Bewitched in which the character Endora exclaims “Alright, whatever” to her daughter. We all know what a witch Endora could be.
Then there is the brilliant “It is what it is.” Duh. What the person literally said was “It is = it is.” Was a statement in dispute? If not, then the phrase is an odd space filler. This expression is often used by lazy people to leave things as they are instead of trying to fix or even examine something. Plato attributes to Socrates the phrase “The unexamined life is not worth living.” On a milder note, perhaps the unexamined saying (“It is what it is”) is not worth expressing. It might be useful to make a definition something other than the exact words being defined.
Some may think I’m arguing for political correctness. Au contraire, my plea is for direct, clear speech—the antithesis of political correctness. Politically correct speech is designed to not offend, even though it often obfuscates meanings, sissifies the language, and is a weapon to silence people who speak the truth.
I’m promoting clear meaning with the speaker being accountable, not hiding behind the skirts of some insipid phrase. Words display our thinking. What we say should be taken seriously—it does reflect our character. If you utter a faux pau, apologize and take responsibility. Building your character and accountability will far outweigh any momentary pain.
The phrases above belong in the family of doublespeak. Oddly enough, George Orwell never used the phrase “doublespeak” in his masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four. However, he did coin the terms doublethink and newspeak, first cousins to doublespeak. Doublespeak is the use of language that deliberately obscures and distorts the meaning of words.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston, is having a conversation about newspeak with his friend Syme, a specialist in newspeak. They are rationally discussing the manipulative nature of newspeak and Syme says, “Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?” As a society we are not far chronologically or, unfortunately, linguistically from 2050. A telling indicator is that in 2016 major politicians who only lie 50% of the time are considered honest enough to be elected.
There is plenty of abdication of responsibility in our society, don’t contribute to it. If you want to maintain good relations with those around you, take responsibility for your remarks and delete the above phrases from your vocabulary, or at least consider the meaning of your words. I’m just sayin’.
An avid hiker for more than 30 years, Tom’s latest book, Hiking Southwest Utah and Adjacent Areas, Volume Two was recently (September 2016) awarded 2nd place in the non-fiction category of the League of Utah Writers published book contest. It is available at Amazon.com and the Desert Rat outdoor store in St. George. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org