Humans are communicative critters. We trumped the animal kingdom’s grunts and whistles by inventing language, made up words and rules for stringing them together to yield meaning. After a few millennia to work out the kinks, we rose above ourselves with poetry, drama, rhetoric, and logic. We figured out how to record the words and preserve them, from cuneiform to alphabets to binary code, from clay tablets to parchment to CD-ROM. From the beginning, we also devised ways to subvert the communication that is the very reason for language. We invented lies and other prevarications, giving rise to legal systems for determining guilt and teasing the truth out of conflicting accounts. And we found ways to use words to say nothing at all.
Saying nothing at all ranges from the long-windedly verbose, like the seasoned politician who can speak stirringly for an hour and convey not one phoneme of real meaning, to the monosyllabically iterative, like those who “um” after every third or fourth word.
In current American idiom, there are several go-to phrases for saying nothing and filling the silence while you gather your thoughts. Two of the most dreaded are “you know” and “like.” Speakers in the habit of using these cannot be listened to for very long, because after the first two, every succeeding “you know” or “like” elicits a bigger wince, until the listener risks whiplash or assault charges.
There are also words that are mindlessly overused to the point that they lose all meaning. Right now, when I hear “amazing,” I am no closer to knowing what the speaker means, beyond general approval, than if he had not spoken. I’ve also heard enough of “actually,” which doesn’t actually mean anything most of the time. As for “toe-tally,” I’m not going there. These words could all be replaced with the nonsense syllable blah without changing the informational content one bit. However, blah would not carry the emotional charge, the thumbs-up of “amazing” or the emphasis of “toe-tally.”
Another way of using language to convey no information beyond emotional content was, until recently, not permitted in public. Now, only G-rated movies are guaranteed to be free of four-letter words and swearing, and obscenities can be heard on cable channels other than the pay-through-the-nose premiums. I am not against this. The words exist; people use them; I use them; it is unreal to portray the world entirely without them. However, I am no more inclined to listen to “fucking” three times per sentence than I am to listen to “you know” at the same frequency.
The constant bleeping of four-letter words on reality shows is bad enough. I am astonished that people resort to them as a matter of course, especially in front of cameras, knowing they will be aired (and bleeped) on national television. Swearwords are intensifiers, allow us to express pain, ill will, frustration, and anger without being specific. But a heartfelt “Jesus H. Christ!” when you stub your toe is one thing. A routine “Eat your fuckin’ vegetables, for Christ’s sake” at the dinner table is another. These words have no intended meaning beyond the expression of negative emotion, i.e., there is no actual reference to sex acts or deities. Language like this is a slap in the face, a confrontational way to say “Hey! Wake up! Listen to me! I mean it!” It’s hard for me to believe people are so ready to slap family, friends, and strangers alike.
Constant bleeping is bad enough; worse is the constant cussing on scripted shows such as The Sopranos and Deadwood. Lured to watch by rave reviews, I have never sat through an entire episode of either, because after the first ten or twenty uses of fuck and goddamn, about 5 to 10 minutes, I’ve had enough and hit the remote. Slap someone often enough and they’ll go numb. Intense language loses intensity through overuse, until intensity can only be maintained by increased density of use. When every utterance is redlining it linguistically (“The fuckin’ thing don’t fuckin’ work unless I fuckin’ beat on it”), the intensifiers lose all effect, and we are left with emptiness that echoes with negativity. The speaker is saying nothing just as vehemently as he can, shouting “Blah!” at top volume every few syllables.
I will, reluctantly, concede that perhaps people do talk to each other like this, with complete disrespect and belligerence, even within families. Reality TV is unpleasant proof of the ubiquity of bad language. I will not concede that such language is either necessary or acceptable as dialogue.
Drama may reflect life, but it’s life with most of the quotidian details mercifully left out. Real people visit a bathroom every few hours. That doesn’t mean we have to watch the characters in a play or movie interrupt the action to do the same in the name of verisimilitude. Unless it’s part of the story, we aren’t subjected to belches, nail biting, hiccups, nose blowing, or a thousand other common human acts. We don’t need to see every mouthful of food chewed and swallowed. We don’t want characters to spew “you know” and “like” multiple times in every sentence even though real people do, because they’re boring and annoying and turn the dialogue into Swiss cheese, riddled with empty spaces. And there’s no reason we should have to listen to a lot of meaningless cuss words that have had all the intensity sucked out of them. To hear “Fuck you!” once in a two-hour movie is shocking. To hear it thirty or forty times in a one-hour episode is just a bore, lots and lots of empty space between meaningful words. So much emptiness makes me yawn and go elsewhere, for characters who reveal the story through their words instead of slapping me silly with them.
This is article 16 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson