Blah Blah Blah
Back in high school, we had all sorts of little games and short-lived obsessions that we'd use to pass the time until we could get the hell out of there — like "Loungerama," a daily stream-of-consciousness bulletin painstakingly typed on food wrappers by me and Gigi and usually consisting of odes to our headmistress (cleverly referred to as "Mrs. Unnnnhhgghhhghhh" due to her constipated personality). Tic-Tac Poker is another one I remember; I believe I still hold the record with twenty-one Tic-Tacs held in my mouth at once without spitting or swallowing any whole. (Scoff if you like, but those things burn.) And the Daily Challenge, issued during class meetings right after the customary nags about yearbook and AP study hall. The only Daily Challenge I remember is the one Pip came up with — don't touch your face for a whole day. I don't know where it came from — I think she read in Seventeen that oils from your hands give you zits or something — but we all snorted, "Pffft. That's, like, so easy."
Au contraire. It is really hard not to touch your face for an entire day. I mean, you start out super-aware of the fact that you can't touch your face, so naturally your nose immediately begins to itch terribly and you have to snarfle it on your sweater sleeve. Then your cheek starts to itch too. Your cheek? Your cheek has nerve endings? The hell? Too bad, can't touch it. Then you have the sudden irresistible urge to smooth your eyebrow — like, you MUST smooth it, because you just know that part of it is rumply, but you can't touch it, and the offending eyebrow is literally throbbing and you can feel the tuft of unsmoothed brow hair waving in the breeze but you can't touch it. And then you go to math class and it's so boring, and you get so sleepy, and maybe you'll just rest your chin on — DAMMIT. Nobody made it past lunch, except Pip, who refused to give in and nearly had a meltdown as a result, to the point where Sign and I had to sit her down and tell her to just touch her freakin' face already before she lost it completely.
And if you think not touching your face for a whole day is hard, try deleting all of the verbal tics from your speech. I cannot get through a five-minute conversation without using the word "basically." Basically, I say "basically" all the ti — DAMMIT. See? I can't stop saying it. I can't stop writing it. I can't cobble together a two-line email without "basically"-ing about something or other, and the really sad part is that it never introduces anything "basic," at all, ever! The word "basically" implies, you know, basics. Verbally, I do not deal in basics. I deal in sidebars and digressions and flights of rhetorical fancy and lengthy hyphenated diversions. For me to begin a sentence, any sentence, with "basically" is, essentially, ridiculous, because my sentences meander on for a month of Dickensian Sundays, punctuated only by the occasional gasp for air and the breathless "so THEN she's like 'blah blah blah' and I'm like 'whatever' and she's like 'okay, like, fine' and so then I told this whole story to HIM and HE was like 'whatever' and wait, did I say what happened two days ago, because two DAYS ago she's like 'meh' and I'm like 'all right,' and THEN with the flap flap flaaaaap," and it's not basic at all, and I have to stop using the word "basically" because in the context of my speech it's completely meaningless, basica — DAMMIT.
"In the end" is another one I say way too often; it means pretty much the same thing as "basically," the way I use it, and it's stupid for the same reasons. "In the end" suggests that my blithering will eventually cease. Not going to happen. Ask anyone.
"Frankly" has got to go as well. I say "frankly" all the time, and so do a lot of people, and it's got my vote as the most overused adverb in spoken English at the moment, because people just start every damn sentence with it now, regardless of any frankness which may or may not follow. It's like "frankly" is a fuse, and we have to light that fuse so the sentence can blow up or something? I don't know. But the other-words-to-"frankly" ratio is way out of whack right now. To wit: "Frankly, I think that's bullshit." Okay — but the word "bullshit" implies a certain level of frankness, don't you think? "Frankly, I'm really hungry." Why would you preface that observation with "frankly" — because it's considered rude to say exactly how hungry you feel, maybe? It's just weird. Even weirder is "quite frankly." Frankness is really not a comparative state. Either you speak frankly, or you don't. "Kind of frankly"? No. "Somewhat frankly"? Not really. "Quite frankly"? Same principle. It's like "very unique" — you can make the case that it's correct, but strictly speaking, it isn't. It's filler.
I generally avoid nitpicking language on such a literal level, especially spoken language, because if I nitpick one thing, I'll have to nitpick everything, and my own speech is chockablock with bizarre neologisms and noun/verb disagreement and whatnot — it's speech, after all. And spoken abuse of grammar doesn't bother me, because, again, written language differs from spoken language. I break a lot of rules in my writing, too; my essays have a colloquial style, for the most part, and such a style isn't served by adhering too strictly to the rules. I've come up against that in my dialogue entries when I attempt to translate a conversation into a compelling (or merely readable) piece of writing, because inflection gets lost and there's a limit to how many ways I can denote a pause and so on. But in doing that, I also notice that I have certain bad habits in my speech that have nothing to do with laws of usage and everything to do with repeating words over and over. We all do it. It's a societal thing, I think — the principle of "nature abhors a vacuum" applied to conversation — that we tend to fill the spaces where we don't quite know what to say with "well" and "you know" and "to be honest." I read a few old Vines over the weekend, and the number of times I start a sentence with "well" (or "okay") is shocking. Why can't I just start the sentence without a buffer? Do men do that too, or is it mostly women who feel the need to introduce our thoughts with a nice, peaceful, conciliatory word like "okay"? Because I kick off thoughts with "well" ALL THE TIME. The word has lost all meaning. Now, it's just what I say before I say anything. It's like the hitch in a batter's swing.
I notice a similar problem when we don't know how to finish a thought; we trail off with "or something" or "or whatever" or "blah blah blah." Come to think of it, though, I don't have a problem with "blah blah blah." I use it too much, probably, but it has value; it's not just noise. It implies that other things happened or were said, and while the fact of their happening or being said is important, their content is not, so the speaker is glossing them: "So she's all upset about the cat pee on the carpet and blah blah blah." We can infer from "blah blah blah" in this case that the "she" in the sentence is upset because 1) cat pee smells; 2) cat pee is hard to get out of carpeting; 3) if you don't get the cat pee out of the carpeting; the cat will pee in the same place again; 4) a professional carpet cleaning is expensive; 5) when a cat pees where it isn't supposed to, it's angry or sick; et cetera. Look at all the information "blah blah blah" covered, all the time "blah blah blah" saved there.
I don't have a problem with "like," either, and here's why. I first tried to explain the concept of "like" to my mother fifteen years ago, when she challenged me to eliminate it from my speech (I failed), and the message didn't get through, but I think I can elucidate it effectively now. "Like" translates the subtext of a situation. When we report or recount a conversation or event, we can repeat exactly who said what and describe their facial expressions, like so: "So she said she didn't want to go, and then he made a face as if he smelled vomit, and then she sighed rather dramatically, and he said, 'Fine,' and I got the feeling that they would argue about it later." Or you can use the word "like," which serves as a shorthand for the facial expressions and the things left unsaid but clearly felt by the participants of the conversation, like so: "So she's like, 'Fuck that, I'm not going,' and he's like, 'Fine, bitch,' and she's like, 'Whatever, I'm still not going,' and he's all passive-aggressive like 'fine, fine,' and then the temperature dropped, like, fifty degrees." My mother never grasped the distinction here, but "say" is for what people say. "Like" is for what people meant, for their faces, for their attitudes, for everything you can't see for yourself when you hear about something secondhand. I have often said, "Okay, great," but been like, "God, whatever." I use "like" a lot, in my speech and in my writing, and I know it's incorrect — along with "he goes" and "she's all" — but, like "blah blah blah," "like" has value. It lets me shade a story. It's frequent, but it's not a tic.
And neither is "dude," another one my mother can't stand because my brother and I will often address her as "dude." "I am not a dude!" No, she's not. But "dude" no longer has anything to do with gender, I don't think. Let's say Mr. S galumphs into the kitchen and asks, "Dude, what's for dinner?" In that context, "dude" means "hey." "Dude" can also mean "you" or "you guys" ("Dudes — dudes! Can you keep it down, I'm on the phone"). It can mean "holy shit" ("duuuuude, that suuuuucks"). It can mean "check it out" ("Dude. Got the job.") and it can mean "good for you" ("Dude! Congratulations!"). Depending on how I nuance the word — how hard I come down on the Ds, how long I draw out the U, what I do with my eyebrows — I can get a whole sentence into one precisely modulated "dude." The sentence usually goes something like, "Hey, Wing Chun, check out that guy over your left shoulder — no, don't look DON'T LOOK — that guy with the jeans, like, could he please go up a size, because I don't need to see that." That's a lot of information in one little word. The other "dude" users in the crowd will know what I mean.
So, I refuse to stop saying "dude" and "like." Ma thinks it makes me sound like a Valley Girl, but even if that's true, the words have their uses. Well, basical — DAMMIT. Help me, MS Thesaurus — you're my only hope.
November 19, 2001
Tags: our friend English