With the prevalence of cell-phones, and the ease with which people now loudly share their banal private conversations with unwilling auditors, I'm often struck by how impoverished their vocabularies are. I get the same feeling watching TV , especially reality shows, where the performers are supposedly not working from a script, or hearing interviews with politicians and cops. I suspect that, as we become a culture that reads less (or, more precisely, reads more amateurish and poorly-crafted writing, and less of the truly eloquent variety), our speaking style reveals our linguistic poverty.
Yesterday, I'll confess, I was watching an episode of Extreme Makeover, in which a motor-mouthed crew takes over some worthy family's crumbling house and turns it into a masterpiece of modern materialism. They hide the renewed digs with a giant bus, and reveal it to the family. Every one of them, after the ritual screaming and "Omigods!" then pronounced the renovations "awesome." As for the help from the TV crew, and friends and neighbours, they're just "awesome" too. It was all, like, totally awesome.
Whatever happened to "awesome's" synonymic rivals -- stupendous, glorious, outstanding, superlative? I doubt if most of these folks could spell or define them. Another symptom of this lack of a vocabulary lode is evident among those who feel compelled to drop the F-bomb into every sentence. Let me declare that I have nothing against the F-bomb itself, or its many inflections. Once when I worked at a fiberglass factory to earn money for university, I marvelled at a fellow worker who got four grammatically distinct uses of the term into one sentence. The man was a f***ing artist in his own way. It's a fine, old, somewhat onomatopeic word that has its uses, especially when you hit your head on a light fixture while dancing on the table. But it's so overused by those who are determined to prove themselves tough,grown up, down to earth, or just choleric (hello, Gordon Ramsay?) that it loses all impact. What do they have left to curse with when they drop a hammer on their toes, or lose all their rent money on a bad casino night? "Good heavens!"?
I once was privileged to stand behind a team bench during a Canadian pro football game and suddenly understood why the media mikes never go there. Every hit and play evoked from the players an unending stream of F-bombs,varied with frequent recourse to other common swear words. Not one of them said "Note the graceful arc of the pigskin projectile against the empyrean, a parabola of pure joy..."
Finally, let me revile against the euphemizers and bafflegab-speakers. They are those often-interviewed public figures (political "leaders," military and police force spokes-officers, and the like) who have been trained to fill time by saying nothing at all, while sounding serious and thoughtful. Through emphasizing abstract nouns and verbs, and a certain gravid pomposity, they also demonstrate linguistic poverty -- the kind that robs others of their time and energy, while marking the speaker as a Bear of Very Little Brain. "At this current point of time, all I can say is the suspect is proceeding down a public thoroughfare, and we are duly considering a variety of several alternatives, and it goes without saying that these difficult issues are highly complex and merit the full weight of our consideration and appropriate deliberation before..." Are you asleep yet? I am, and I'm writing this.
Things were not ever thus. Once (a long time before talk radio dumbed everything down to verbal bullying), there was wit in public discourse. Consider this exchange attributed to Gladstone and Disraeli:
Gladstone said to Disraeli, "I predict, Sir, that you will die either by hanging or of some vile disease". Disraeli replied, "That all depends, sir, upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress."
Even a f-bomb would briefly enliven today's leaden monologues, to which the newspeople duly nod, and then thrust the mikes even closer, as if something was actually being said. Awesome, isn't it?
Causes John Oughton Supports
PEN International, Amnesty International, League of Canadian Poets, POR AMOR, Greenpeace