Monday, June 22, 2015

Alas, We Babble On

"Make haste while the sun shines," it says on the sales brochure.  It goes right in the recycle bin because I don't buy stuff from illiterates.  The weather matters, you see, when you're making hay, not haste, but what sounds similar means the same thing and our English teachers seem to approve.  Language is not just about description,  it's about suggestion, it's about class identification or class aspiration.  It's not about communication but about being cute, being hip, being humble, being haughty.  and these days, when bad is good and badder is better, it's about pretense. Doesn't it sound elite to the ignorant to "embiggen" something rather to enlarge it?  Does it make me sound more masculine to add "ass" as a suffix to most adjectives?  Is it more business schoolish to gift things rather than give them?  Am I being  "hip"or simply sheep-like to think I am by substituting "fail" for failure, or am I just defining myself as one?

"Make haste while the sun shines" is a Malapropism unless it's a conscious parody and I suspect this isn't one.   The same goes for pushing envelopes, towing lines,  proving things with pudding and "impactful" collisions which is an oxymoron as well.  We don't seem to think much about what we're saying and these twisted tropes and mangled metaphors are so ingrained and habitual we don't notice the anachronism when an actor in a drama set in  Regency England says a disease has impacted someone's faculties.  A bullet impacted Lincoln's brain, effectively affecting history. Monkey hear, monkey say, monkey don't think much.

Maybe B.F. Skinner was right and we are better off looking at behavior and not talking about rational cogitation, something that seems a bit uncommon and out of style.  I observe that we can't ever get up close without getting personal. We can't say record without putting "track" in front and in neither case are we making the phrase more accurate, clear or understandable.  Classical conditioning, Operant Conditioning, I don't know.  Maybe I'm getting it all wrong.  I'm not the psychologist after all, I'm the rat in the maze looking for a way out and not finding it, but we learn by listening and more and more, we listen to people who should not be examples instead of reading those who should.  We hardly read literature. We hardly read anything older than the loaf of bread we bought this morning and too often we read and listen to people trying to sell us a product. No one corrects us when we say irregardless, when we say 'complected' instead of complexioned.  Where are the English teachers?  Have they gone away or are they trapped in a doctrine of "anything goes or are they off studying video clips on Youtube?

My dad, a salesman, used to say "everyone's a salesman" and I suppose that's true. Perhaps American English is the last remaining trace of Democracy devolving to mob rule, but perhaps too, it's more of a marketing tool of consumerism.  The politician, the guy with a lot of used cars, a warehouse full of snake oil -- the advocate for a cause, your defense lawyer: everyone. Their object is not to paint an accurate picture but to frame reality, to direct your thought by tailoring the language the way Barnum drew us to go see "the egress" as though it were some sort of bird.  We're allowing people to dictate what we say and how we say it all under the rubric of "language has to change." We're allowing people with causes to tell us what's proper, permissible or not and it seems we've acquired the habit of following along without question even when we're lead into contradiction.  We know we must never refer to the Orient unless it be in a Christmas carol but we don't wonder, we don't ask lest we be labelled -- we accept. We're uncomfortable talking about boys and girls lest we insult someone and someone has taught us to refer to any residence as a "home" in order to give it a warmer image so that we're more likely to buy or rent it, be it trailer, tenement or tent. The language has to change and I'm the one to tell you what to say and not to say, says the activist.

Do any of us still cringe when people say "the reason is because," or "the reason why I did it?"   Does anyone shed tears to hear merit and meretricious confused? I've long given up on telling people there's a difference between "because of " and "due to" although it's a  big one. Go forth and multiply, says the school system.  Say what you will shall be the law, not that we can see or discuss any difference between shall and will, of course. Too fussy to hold the interest of the LCD.

Yes, of course usage changes but to offer that fact as a denial that there is any importance to what you say or how you say it.has become common -- perhaps universal.  Sure Shakespeare did all kinds of things to English but Shakespeare was aware and competent and a poet.  That you don't know torturous from tortuous from tortious doesn't make you Shakespeare or even Charles Bukowski, nor does the addition of adulimubab make up for the loss of so many words.  Our declining vocabularies have made us resort to nudge, wink, body language, inflection and tone: IN-vite for invitation, for instance: Dee-fense as opposed to defense.

Certainly most of us know the word 'beginning.'  We recognize dawn, birth, inception, conception, origination, genesis, emergence, rise, start, commencement, starting point, launch, onset, outset, opening, and several more metaphoric synonyms, but what we usually get is Git-go.  It's not all ignorance, it's pretense too as I've suggested already although it's been a very long time since the folksey affactation produced the desired result.   Have we forgotten the difference between waiting for Godot and waiting on Godot?  Perhaps not.  Whether it's selling something or selling ourselves as country or gangster, upscale or proletarian, smart or smart-ass, American English is possibly the most poorly used, misused and abused language it's ever been. I weep for poor Ophelia incapable of her own distress, floating on the water. . .

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