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Gained in Translation

As A Purveyor of Language, Radio Reflects Our Changing Habits of Speech

As A Purveyor of Language, Radio Reflects Our Changing Habits of Speech

Regular readers of this column have detected its predilection for nuances of language. Given that radio is part of the broader discipline known in academic circles as Speech, analysis of language seems an appropriate match – and a welcome foil – to the typically technical content covered here. Of particular interest is the dynamic character of language, something that radio’s immediacy plays a strong part in promulgating.

A recent book chronicles one such metamorphosis, focusing particularly on a tendency in today’s American English toward evasiveness, which is accomplished largely by extending the traditional definition of a few common words, such as because, but, feel, it, like and whatever.

Author Maggie Balistreri calls her little book The Evasion-English Dictionary, and both its size and style are slightly reminiscent of William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White’s well-known The Elements of Style. Although not destined to become such a seminal text as Strunk & White, The Evasion-English Dictionary still makes a welcome addition to the bookshelves of serious English users today, including radio talent.

Diversionary tactics

As the author explains in her introduction, contemporary language has always contained elements of non-literal, ritualistic filler, such as “How ya doin’?,” which serves as a greeting, but is not really meant to actually ask the question that those words would intrinsically convey. But in the creeping transformation Balistreri observes, this kind of empty or evasive speech is taking up an ever-greater amount of everyday conversation, to a point that moved her to write the EED.

Her primary point is as much sociological as it is linguistic. Much of the book deals with how people use coded words or phrases to shift causality or blame away from themselves, such as the use of but instead of because, as in, “I’m not rich, but I like nice things.” Similarly, the word feel replaces am to soften an admission, as in “I feel so guilty.”

Another noted tendency is the use of hate instead of have in the phrase “I hate to say it, but …” In fact, the author feels that no one really hates saying it when they cite their impressions, as in “I hate to say it, but our house is bigger,” but that in phrasing it that way, they feel placed above people who would actually hold such an opinion unabashedly.

Along the same lines, think often replaces know, as in “I don’t want you to think I’m the sort of person who could just do something like that.”

Balistreri finds one of the most basic attempts at fault reassignment in what she calls “the eye-chart it,” coming from “It still looks blurry …OK, now it’s clear.” The eye chart isn’t actually blurry, but only seems so due to weaknesses in the speaker’s vision. Thus when someone says, “It’s not clear,” they really mean it’s not clear to them. In other words, the assistance applied is not yet adequate to overcome their inadequacy, but the responsibility is shifted externally to the source.

A variant uses it in place of I for another blame-diversion tactic, as in, “I’m sorry, it was wrong.” Other cited replacements for I or me include you (“You know when you have a bad day and you take it out on the kids?”) and the relationship (“You owe it to the relationship.”). Interestingly, the relationship can also be a substitute for you, as in “I’m not getting what I want from the relationship.”

It’s, like, insightful

The most enjoyable section of the book covers the word like, which the author traces from its Valley-speak roots to widespread usage. Balistreri identifies no less than 10 applications of the word, ranging from vagueness (“That was back in, like, October.”) to an apology for inarticulateness (“I was, like, wow.”).

Similarly, the book includes eleven uses of whatever, etymologically referenced to the 1995 movie “Clueless,” and brought forward to today. Entries include its usage as an expression of apathy (“She said I was insensitive and I was like, whatever.”) and as a pseudo-nonjudgmental statement (“She’s dating the boss. Whatever.”).

Balistreri stresses that like and whatever are a different sort of evasive language than the others, in that they are not used to deflect responsibility. They are instead an evasion of full expression, and a sort of laziness of language or abbreviated speech. Nevertheless, she concedes that, at least in the case of whatever, a considerable amount of meaning can be conveyed in a single word, when associated with a given context and the tonal presentation of the speaker.

The Evasion-English Dictionary is a useful book, but also a fun read, particularly for those who enjoy language (to whom I highly recommend it). One of its most striking aspects is that none of the cited usages are at all unfamiliar to the reader. We hear, and perhaps use (maybe even broadcast), many of these phrases every day, which makes Balistreri’s identifying them all the more pointed. Her analysis and encouragement to avoid them could help us all be more precise in our speech, both on and off the air. A little more honesty and acknowledgment of our responsibilities wouldn’t hurt either, but whatever.