A Conversation with Leslie Savan
Q: What was it about the way Americans talk that inspired you to write this book?
A: I used to write a column about advertising for the Village Voice, and I started to notice that certain words and phrases kept popping up in ads. I don’t mean obvious ad lines like “new and improved,” but the more subtle stuff, like stuff, no-brainer, Yesss!, Hey, You’re goood, outside the box, wake-up call, the name Bob. They were there, too, in sitcoms, reality TV, blogs, movies, corporate Web sites, Senate repartee, conversations I’d overhear, and my own mouth. Wherever these words were used and regardless of their context, they seemed to work as punchlines—as if they came with built-in applause signs and laugh tracks. And if inflected properly, they could usually pull attention and consensus their way, just like really persuasive ads do. I started to think of these phrases as a kind of universal sales solvent, one that could sell cars, political arguments, and, in this age of personal branding, ourselves.
Q: You differentiate between pop language and slang. Please explain.
A: Pop language includes a lot of slang, but pop is much more than that. Some pop phrases, like bling bling or fashionista, are technically slang, which is usually defined as “non-standard” and probably transient language. But most pop speech today is made up of perfectly ordinary and permanent words, like Who’s your daddy or Don’t go there.
Pop, by definition, is not jargon either. Unlike the various jargons that bind relatively small groups, be they 12-year-old skateboarders or Big Pharma lobbyists, true pop pops for everyone, regardless of age, race, class, region, or occupation.
Whether a phrase starts as slang, jargon, or just a grouping of ordinary words pronounced with attitude, it doesn’t become a pop phrase unless it gets picked up by a mass audience. You might think of these phrases as the contestants on American Idol. To get votes from viewers and the thumbs-up from the panel of copywriters and scriptwriters, the words not only have to skillfully hit all the familiar notes, but they have to evince some glamour. If they continue to win media exposure, and if they express something the wider public wants expressed, these phrases, no matter where they’re from, will step out into the spotlight as celebrity words, the stars of our sentences.
You could also say (I do) that pop eats slang for breakfast. Pop words are not only more famous, powerful, and sales savvy than slang and other turns of speech, but pop is constantly digesting new expressions to keep itself sounding fresh and “different.”
Q: Haven’t people always used catchphrases?
A: You’re spot on. Extremely popular speech and snappy phrases run throughout history. During the early nineteenth century, for instance, London was gaga over What a shocking bad hat!, There he goes with his eye out!, and Flare-up!, expressions that were the cat’s meow for months or years and then vanished.
But catchphrases play a different role in our lives today than they have in the past, and that is largely because of the extraordinarily rapid growth of various media, especially over the last 50 years. With more media vying more ferociously for the attention of people who are busier and more distracted than ever, media and marketing more desperately need language that stops us in our tracks, that temporarily stuns us–much like seeing a famous person does–and makes us more likely to buy whatever it’s saying or selling. Similarly, regular people need more kick-butt language to cut through the clutter of other people’s messages. A correctly delivered Stick a fork in him–he’s done or step up to the plate can position us in ways we hope to be seen. Pre-packaged, pre-tested mass words, especially if they sound spontaneous and robustly individualistic, are useful time-saving devices. Or, to put that in pop: These phrases are our go-to guys.
Q: Where do pop words and phrases come from? You write about the influence of black American vernacular language, for instance.
A: The media distribute phrases and make them more glamorous, but relatively few pop phrases actually begin life in an ad agency or on a TV show, as Wendy’s Where’s the beef? and Homer Simpson’s D’oh! have. By and large, pop language originates among “real people” trying to express something previously not expressed. The source of a particular buzzphrase may be prom queen or drag queen, boardroom or locker room, but as often as not the source is black. From the days of slavery on through jive, jazz, rock’n’roll, and now hip hop, African Americans have influenced the speech that went on to become pop more than any other group of people. Some black-inspired phrases we speak with an implicit nod to their source, like my bad, You the man, You go, girl, street cred, while others we think of as almost sourceless, like 24/7, lame, in your face, or, the preeminent pop word of all time, cool.
But the black influence on American speech goes beyond individual words. As an often playful, ironic alternative to the standard tongue, black slang has prefigured pop language in much the same way that black music has prefigured, and has often become, pop music. In fact, as the official unofficial speech of America, black talk is the prime reason for pop talk’s crush on everything “alternative” and “outsider.” White attempts to yo here and dis there, or to replace an “s” with a “z” to better sell brandz, are an important piece of identity-and-image building for individuals and corporations alike. It may seem twisted, given American history, but today, the language of an excluded people is repeated by the non-excluded in order to automatically sound more included.
Q: When are we most likely to employ pop language?
A: When we’re under duress. Or when we’re defending our social turf. Or when we’re angry and just want to roll up the window of our SUV on the frustrations of everyday life. Instead of thinking, we grab the nearest item from the arsenal of peevish put-downs: Don’t even think about it, What part of “no” don’t you understand?, Yeah, right, and, my pet peeve phrase, I don’t think so–and we immediately start to feel more in control. These kinds of comebacks are also pop in the sense of “I’ll pop you one!” We’re tempted so many times a day to fall into a dismissive pique that we’ve even turned nice words, like hello, please, and excuse me, into their evil, easily offended twins: Hel-lo?!, Puh-leeze!, Ex-CUSE me?. Loaded with killer inflections, these licensed weapon words chop down any and all assaults on the sensitive modern ego.
What gives these words their clout is that we can sense a crowd, a crowd of millions, standing behind them. We hear too much information, your worst nightmare, or duh, and we immediately sense the power structure of the moment.
Q: Pop language has even entered the arena of war. For example, in a meeting with Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia before the invasion of Iraq, Dick Cheney said, “Saddam is toast.” What are we to make of such statements?
A: According to Bob Woodward’s book Plan of Attack, Dick Cheney, defense secretary Rumsfeld, and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Myers held a high-level meeting with Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia to convince him to use his influence to win Saudi support for an invasion. But Bandar was afraid that the U.S. would fail to get rid of Saddam; after all, Saddam remained unscathed after the 1991 Gulf War. It wasn’t until the vice president of the United States reached for the same swaggering phrase used by Bill Murray in Ghostbusters to signal an attack on the evil Sumerian goddess—Murray shouted, “This chick is toast!”—that Bandar agreed to get the go-ahead from the Saudi crown prince.
More infamously in the lead up to the war, CIA director George Tenet assured President Bush, Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and chief-of-staff Andrew Card that finding Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction would be a “slam dunk.” Tenet’s deputy had just presented a detailed White House briefing on WMDs, but it failed to convince anybody. Then, according to Woodward, Tenet rose up from a couch and said, “It’s a slam dunk case!” The Georgetown basketball fan repeated the remark—this time saying, “Don’t worry, it’s a slam dunk!”—and the mood in the Oval Office shifted from doubt to confidence. Nothing, I think, better shows the persuasive power of pop: It can squelch dissent and corral consensus even in the face of war and the deaths of thousands.
Q: Although we use pop phrases to attack each other, we also use more earnest-sounding pop language, what you call “commitment-centered words.” Is this the language of good citizenship, or is it just touchy-feely?
A: To some extent, no one will believe you are a good citizen unless you lay on the touchy-feely talk, and use words like empowerment, inclusiveness, or, as a banner strung across a street in a downtrodden New Jersey town read, “LET’S TAKE A PROACTIVE APPROACH FOR COMMUNITY WELLNESS.” Many people want to do good and help out, but instead we often just recite some pre-programmed words that’ve had all the life flattened out of them. This way we don’t have to think about the “thoughtful” things we’re talking about.
Because this language is so associated with altruism, it can disarm our skepticism and is a favorite of commercial interests, like those companies that speak solemnly about “giving back to the community” (after they’ve pretty well bulldozed it).
This sort of language has also been called psychobabble, doublespeak, bureaucratese; often it’s just lumped together as “politically correct,” which itself is often doublespeak for “liberal.” In truth, though, the right uses PC pop about as much as the supposedly Birkenstock left. The right also talks about finding “closure,” about “sharing” one’s travails, and, in accusing the non-faith-based of bad faith, the right came up with the most curious PC phrase of 2004: “the reality-based community.”
Q: How can we manage the role that pop language plays in our daily communication without being overly self-conscious?
A: In keeping with the last question, I’m going to be as transparent and accountable as possible here: I’m not sure. There is no easy—that is, pop—answer. I hate to say it, but you have to listen to yourself and be aware. It is indeed a thin line between being aware and being overly self-conscious. But if you step back with a little detachment and a bit of humor, you can probably spot the telltale signs that you and the media you dwell in are becoming too hooked on pop: Do you sniff out a sales component in the language? Do you ever get a sour taste in your mouth from your own ironic comebacks? Do you secretly hope your words are playing to a phantom crowd? Do you ever use popular phrases to do the thinking for you–or, hey, to step up to the plate and cover your back when you don’t have the answer to a hard question?