Popspeak -- by Leslie Savan
My good friend Dave Adler, who knows me all too well, forwarded this article to me...
By LESLIE SAVAN
Published: July 10, 2005
We have all heard, and at times we all speak in, pop phrases: Hel-lo? I don't think so. Duh. Step up to the plate. Think outside the box. Give back to the community. LOL. You da man! Pop phrases are not just popular phrases or current cliches -- they shine with an extra glamour. They are words that pop out of their surround, that have built-in applause signs and that, if inflected properly, step into the spotlight as verbal celebrities, the stars of our sentences. And like, say, Britney Spears or Wayne Newton, a You go, girl! or a What part of ''no'' don't you understand? is not necessarily the latest or hippest thing around. A phrase might be so last millennium, but familiarity only expands its fan base.
For all its show-biz quality, though, pop talk is more than pretty prattle. It's an important part of the copy-written, self-dramatizing thinking that powers us all up these days, and nothing makes that clearer than the way the big feet in Washington put boots on the ground in Iraq.
As Bob Woodward tells it in ''Plan of Attack,'' the United States was determined to win Saudi support for a new invasion. But Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the longtime Saudi ambassador, feared that we would fail to get rid of Saddam Hussein, as we failed to during the 1991 gulf war. So Vice President Dick Cheney asked Bandar to his West Wing office in January 2003 to be briefed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs; Bandar was even allowed to look over a map of the attack plans marked TOP SECRET NOFORN (no foreign eyes). Still, he wasn't buying.
But when Cheney said, ''Prince Bandar, once we start, Saddam is toast'' -- echoing Bill Murray in ''Ghostbusters,'' who led an attack on a Sumerian goddess threatening to destroy New York City by shouting, ''This chick is toast!'' -- the prince agreed to get a thumbs-up from back home.
More infamous -- but in an almost identical display of pop talk outmarketing blander communication -- is the earlier performance of George Tenet, director of central intelligence at the time of Woodward's book. Tenet's deputy had just laid out a tenuous report on Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, failing to persuade President George W. Bush or Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, that W.M.D. could make a convincing case for an invasion. Bush complained that the presentation wasn't ''something that Joe Public would understand,'' Woodward writes. Then Tenet, a Georgetown basketball fan, threw his arms in the air and said (in words that Joe Public would understand), ''It's a slam-dunk case!'' He repeated it: ''Don't worry, it's a slam dunk!'' -- and the mood in the White House shifted from doubt to confidence.
Today, we all use words that are themselves slam dunks -- that jam an argument into the basket and pull consensus our way. Whether we're selling policies, products or our own branded selves, catch phrases like Don't even think about it or It's show time! help to streamline speech into a series of scripted responses with predetermined outcomes. They often do this by replaying in conversation the movie, TV show or commercial in your head. Answering No way! with Way! turns your respondent into Garth and you into Wayne. When producers edit in an actor's Yesss! from a movie into a trailer for the movie -- Hilary Duff hissing Yesss! in an ad for ''The Perfect Man'' is only the most recent example -- they are betting your response will be: ''Gotta see this movie. Yesss!''
Mass-media tropes, however, seldom come directly from an ad agency or a Hollywood studio, as Wendy's Where's the beef? or Homer Simpson's D'oh apparently have. Whether the words began as slang (nonstandard language, à la bling), jargon (insider group talk, like the once-techie-only blog) or ordinary words pronounced to exude 'tude (Don't go there), the vast majority of pop phrases are created by ''real people.'' But when the media pick up on a phrase and showcase it in ads, TV shows, movies and all over the Web, it comes back to real people with a new cachet and sheen.
That is because what pop language really communicates is that millions of others speak it, too. Behind slam dunk or so-and-so is toast is the roar, if not also the threat, of a crowd -- in fact, it is this crowd-in-a-can quality of pop talk that makes it so persuasive. Each modular phrase is part of a franchise deal, confirmed by endless repetition. No matter your age, race, class or lifestyle, terms like walk the walk, I hate it when that happens or that pop oldster lifestyle can be understood across America and often beyond.
Of course, popular catch phrases run throughout history -- early-19th-century London was enamored of Flare-up!, Quoz and There he goes with his eye out! -- and people have always used them in a rote manner. Imitation, repetition and plugging in ready-made phrases are, after all, the methods by which humans learn speech.
But the enormous growth of the media, especially during the last 50 years or so, has changed the role that pop language plays in our lives. As more media more desperately try to be heard over the noise of other media in order to sell things to people who are more distracted than ever, there is more pressure on language to generate snappy lines that can close a deal.
This language both expresses and shapes a transactional personality, a light, efficient, wise-to-the-world public face that helps us click through the myriad consumer decisions confronting an affluent life: DSL or cable? Low fat or low carb? Public school or private? Pop allows us a certain fuzzy freedom to barge through any second thoughts and just buy (or believe or bomb, depending on the context). When you want to banish doubt, assert dominance, provoke a laugh or just get over an awkward silence, grabbing one of these phrases is, in more ways than one, a no-brainer.
You don't have to be a rocket scientist to realize that too much pop talk could prevent you from becoming a brain surgeon. I'll bottom-line it for you: As we talk more and more in pretested, media-favored phrases, the box outside of which we claim we want to think gets harder to escape.
Leslie Savan is the author of ''Slam Dunks and No-Brainers,'' to be published by Knopf in October.