Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Linguistic Annoyances


I’m hearing that a lot lately. If I tell a waiter or waitress my menu selection (s)he’ll say, “Perfect.” Talking to a with a technical support person or medical professional, I’ll identify myself by phone number or birthdate and hear: “Perfect.” How can my name or birthdate be perfect?

And then there’s “Yeah, no” to begin a response to a statement or a question. The first few times I heard “Yeah, no” I was thinking the respondent is confused or ambivalent, but after hearing them again and again I’m thinking maybe they’re a kind of preface designed to avoid giving offense to the interrogator — a way to keep one’s foot in the door so as to be able to backtrack if necessary and declaring from the start that you could go either way on the question.

Another trendy phrase is “having said that” or “that said,” which seems to be a signal that what follows builds upon whatever has been expressed. It leaves me thinking: “I know you just said that; I heard it.” Maybe it’s a clue that the speaker is about to go off in a different direction. Maybe it’s just superfluous, or a way to collect one’s thoughts before going on — a substitute for “ahhh…” which might sound foolish if repeated too many times. Or, that said, maybe the speaker thinks the phrase makes him sound cool and intelligent because he’s heard it used by others he considers cool and intelligent.

For years now I’ve been hearing “He signed off on it,” to mean “He approved it,” but the juxtaposition of opposite prepositions feels incongruous. “On” follows immediately after “Off” and disturbs my linguistic instincts. One can “sign on” to something, meaning to join with it, but to “sign off” would mean to quit. Those meanings are extant and have been for most of my lifetime so to hear “sign off on” for so long now is bothersome — almost as bad as beginning a response with “Yeah, no.”

And, lately “nuance” is being overused, especially when employed to describe a person when it was formerly limited to things like artistic performances or physical works of art. A synonym would be “subtle.” Now it’s used by progressives to disparage the president, as in: “Trump lacks nuance,” a condescending strategy to portray him as thick-headed and unable to recognize subtle shades of meaning that progressives and their ilk all perceive.

The tired expression “thinking outside the box” is finally in decline whereas “thrown under the bus” is still is wide use. I complained about the latter in a 2011 column in which I tried in vain to figure out where it originated. I’m learning to tolerate it though because it’s clearly not going away. I’ve stopped wondering: why a bus? Why not under a subway car or a truck? And, no more do I try to imagine what throwing someone under a bus would actually look like.

Many of us are careful to be fashionable in what we wear, drive, listen to, and say. There was a time I adhered to fashion trends like these but it was brief and long ago. As verification that I don’t any longer, one of my daughters sent me a Fathers’ Day card last year with a caricature of a geeky-looking man under which was written:

“Dad, your refusal to care who thinks you’re cool used to puzzle me.” (open card) “Now it inspires me!” 

At Whole Foods in Portland, Maine last week were men in various combinations of skinny jeans, man buns, facial metal, skin graffiti, and other trappings of millennial progressivism. They considered those accoutrements vital to their identities and I felt sorry for them, especially the older ones who hadn’t grown beyond all that. I like the multi-grain sandwich bread the store bakes on site every day, and it’s the only thing I buy there so I was in and out quickly. Had I stayed longer I might have heard samples of leftist language trends currently in fashion. 

For example, progressives have assigned new connotations to the familiar word “woke.” So far I’ve only encountered it in writing but were I to hang out at left-wing gathering places like Whole Foods I would probably hear it spoken. The new meaning has only figurative reference to sleeping or waking up; contextual clues indicate it’s a gauge of political consciousness. Merriamwebster.com confirms that, declaring: “‘Woke’ is increasingly used as a byword for social awareness… a slang term that is easing into the mainstream from some varieties of a dialect called African American Vernacular English (sometimes called AAVE).”

Also included was a caution from a New York Times writer that use of the word by white people would invoke charges of cultural appropriation — a definite linguistic/fashion/PC faux pas.


piddingworth said...

Tom, no problem. I hear what you're saying. Thank you for joining the conversation.

Uber_Fritz said...


Excellent insight and imagination as I always expect from you. And, I have not been disappointed. With respect to "signing off," I do have a legal education as well. And, I learned to use more appropriate and accurate language, such as "the client executed the document." I had a splendid professor in legal methods who simply abhorred the use of anything but clear, plain English.

However, I am surprised that you did not mention "Ebonics." There was a landmark Supreme Court Case decided in 1974. Lau v. Nichols asserts the rights of language minority students, implying that students for whom English is not native define that group.

Consequently, Oakland, California school board passed a resolution defining Ebonics as the native language of 28,000 African American students within that school district.

This went on for a time and, of course, was support by the brilliant Maxine Waters. Unfortunately or fortunately, Ebonics is NOT a foreign language and, therefore, does not fall under the holding of the Lau v. Nichols Court.

Anonymous said...

Pretty sure "Under the bus" evolved from "Thrown off the band wagon."
"Thrown off the campaign bus? Hell, she was thrown under the wheels!"
From an old way of entirely eliminating someone "accidentally".

"Lacks Nuance", is simply the fall back when "Speaking in secret dog whistles"
proves to re-expose the critic's ignorance and prejudicial bias.
"Perfect". simply the "Very good choice sir" stroking of old, only using the words learned from teachers in elementary school when you got ALL the addition questions right. Be happy they approve of your choices.
"Woke", by no means implies "awareness", merely passing knowledge of ONE internationalist rationalization to cut in line for The Nobel Peace Prize, after getting that one "PERFECT" in red ink on top of the page of the math quiz, or from mom after cleaning up your room.
"Yeah No" I heard the words you just said, but tuned out at the first foreign dog whistle I don't "get".
"Dude! Lack of engaging woke nuance in your first sentence."
Hope that helps you get hip to the awareness.
NEWSPEAK vs. CODESPEAK: I always wonder how many Saddle Shoe/Bobby Soxers spent their teens whelping "Try not be such a square!!!!" to their parents, only to end up down with The Masons.

Brian said...

I haven't heard people using "yeah, no", but one that drives me crazy is people saying "So don't I" when they mean the exact opposite.

Waiters asking "Are you still working on that" is another pet peeve. Eating to me is not work.

I don't see the big difference in referring to a thick-headed dolt like Trump as not having nuance as compared to not understanding subtlety.

As for woke, I guess other words could be more appropriate. For example, you could call someone who doesn't comprehend that male, white privilage exists lots of other things instead. A dolt. Dumb. Braindead. Moron.....etc, etc

Anonymous said...

I'm not quite sure how the man-bun picture fits into the column. Nobody knows where to pee? Really, you don't know where to pee? How strange.

Mary said...

Twenty years ago I worked as a nanny in Italy. On one of my first days on the job, the mother asked me how her son had been, and I replied that he was "perfect". She responded to me that there was no such thing as perfection. She was right, of course! I've always been cautious in using that word ever since.

Anonymous said...

How about a perfect game in bowling?

Brian said...

Tom must be upset with Republican Trump appointee Scott Pruitt going after Trump and claiming he has less "nuance" than Obama. I the same 2016 interview he said:

"I believe that Donald Trump in the White House would be more abusive to the Constitution than Barack Obama"

Boy, how right he was. Does anybody think he has even read the Constitution?

Brian said...

I can see why Tom has "warmed up" to Trump. Get a load of Trump's comments that the climate change argument "isn't working too well because it was getting too cold all over the place"!!

He really said that!! He has the same mentality as a child, or a columnist who would make the same sort of claim because it was really cold in his backyard!

Oh, the six hottest years on record have all occurred since 2010? So what, it felt cold outside today so that "Trumps" all!!

Anonymous said...

I agree that the majority of so-called "cultural appropriation" is a bunch of hogwash. But there are some cases that can be obnoxious and racist - performing in blackface, calling your sports team the "redskins", fraternities holding "Gangstas and Hos" parties, etc.

Steve said...

I love articles like this, and I agree with most of them here. Another annoyance I would add is asking questions in the negative. “Did you not get my email?” Whether I answer yes or no, invariably their next question is, “Yes you did or no you didn't?” But since you made this universal topic unnecessarily political, I would add the word elite to you list of linguistic annoyances. With the Democratic elites, political elites, liberal elites, progressive elites, DC elites, beltway elites, coastal elites, Hollywood elites, media elites, higher-ed elites the word has been overused so much, it simply doesn’t have meaning anymore.

To say Trump lacks nuance is not a strategy and it's not condescending. It's the gentlest way to state the glaringly obvious; he's a dim-witted, disinterested adolescent. Read this interview ( https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/07/13/us/politics/trump-air-force-one-excerpt-transcript.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&referer=http%3A%2F%2Fm.facebook.com ) and tell me you see a beautifully nuanced mind at work. Wait until you get to the see-through, solar-powered border wall part. You’ll soil yourself.