Say It Again Sam

FTLComm - Tisdale - Friday, February 15, 2002

Yesterday morning Canadian Hockey Olympic coach Pat Quinn said that even the best of friends when on opposing teams will try to “beat the tar” out of his friend. Now that sounded pretty awful and from common usage I think I know what it means, but where did that phrase come from and to what did it originally refer?

English is so full of phrases that come to us from agrarian societies, the days of sailing ships and a whole range of things including non-verbal communication that came from feudalism and chivalry. My intention here is to ask you to examine what you say and listen carefully to what others say and see how much of it belongs in the present context.

“I don’t want to take the wind out of your sails, I just want you to put your money where your mouth is.

Much of what we say are phrases that simple are in use long after we know longer understand what the original meaning was. These kinds of phrases are anachronisms. Here is the definition for that term:

    1. Something from a different period of time, for example, a modern idea or invention wrongly placed in a historical setting in fiction or drama
    2. A person, thing, idea, or custom that seems to belong to a different time in history
    3. The representation of somebody or something out of chronological order or in the wrong historical setting

The second and much more common phrase that we have to deal with are those cute little sayings that seem to be just a little worn out, a cliché. This is a meaning for this term:

    1. A phrase or word that has lost its original effectiveness or power from overuse
    2. An overused activity or notion

Mostly we construct our speech from what we hear and what strikes us as novel or interesting. Though we all incorporate clichés in what we say, they really become annoying when broadcasters use them and perhaps sports commentators are the very worst abusers of all languages. I doubt if there is ever a competitive sport where someone doesn’t give “110%” or we are told that this player “came to play.”

The fabrication of language is a fluid and dynamic process, especially in a language like English, which absorbs non-English words and phrases easily. Some personality says that something is “fantastic” and before you know it we were all saying everything was “fantastic”.

California screenwriters borrow heavily on the trends of language that develop in youth culture so that for years I had to consciously flush out of my speech “wow man” and I am still working on it just as “right on” became a verbal infection. The Silicon Valley South of San Francisco seemed to produce a female speech pattern that not only involved particular phrases like “so, totally cool” or as in the movie “Clueless” the star when missing a stop sight recites that she “totally paused”. Young women all over North America have adopted the speech pattern as well whereby all tonality is erased from the voice and we are served tongue chirps in place of a voice. Just to make it even more confusing the pierced tongue with a stud reduces even further understands ability and increased the chirp.

The writers for Fox’s Gilmore Girls give us the Eastern version of “val girl” talk in the lines given for the show’s star Lauren Graham to say. As Lorili Gilmore Ms Graham adds “so” as an adjective to most nouns in place of “very” or “more”.

The reason I mention this is that these not so unique verbal treats quickly move from the screen to our mouths and before we know it they are very tired phrases.

Speech evolves in a culture and African Americans have throughout history reshaped English to reflect their culture and identify themselves as distinctive. This not only involved the words used but the syntax as well so that unusual grammar such as the use of the word “do” without regard for tense.

Just for the fun of it, take time to examine what you say, listen carefully to what others say and you will be surprised at the things that come out of our mouths. I have no idea if this is a matter for our concern, perhaps it is, but perhaps it is also a way for past cultures to assert themselves into the present. Whatever the case, it is interesting and I would love
to hear of examples you discover.