DUCK SOUP: Why Words Like Y-Words?

I am one of a diminishing handful of North Americans who have never used the phrase, "Yadda, yadda, yadda." Nor do I know where the phrase originated, though I surmise it must be a televisionism. Only televisionisms spread through our culture with the speed of a new strain of flu. This y-word has popped up in The New Yorker and Time, in Congressional debate and in grocery stores. From the context in which it is usually uttered, one senses it means either "etcetera" or the more colloquial "and so on and so forth," imbued with the pejorative twist heard in "blah, blah, blah." Language constantly morphs but in the TV age it is endlessly mangled. Perhaps this should be called Morphie's Law . "Whatever damage television can impose on language, it will, and it will do so with the worst possible effect."Long ago, before the printing press brought a degree of standardization to the written word, spelling was a creative adventure. Shakespeare is the iconic case in point, having written his own name with whatever vowels he had on hand at any given moment. Then came the first dictionaries which made spelling and meaning more concise.Concision meant that one could behave to the "letter of the law" and still commit mischief. Legal and moral began to diverge, since, after all, the word "concise" means to cut up into smaller and smaller pieces. Suddenly we all needed attorneys."In the beginning," we read, "was the word." Somewhat later came the spellchecker. "Spellchecker" implies "computer" to those of us who use "word processors" instead of pen and paper or Smith Coronas. Technological and social change are often the fertilizer that spurs lingual growth. I have an eighty-five year old unabridged dictionary which contains numerous entries pertaining to horses and buggies, with shuttles described as weaving tools, instead of rockets. This book was published long before Winston Churchill famously linked the words "iron" and "curtain" in a meaning that may now fade together with the connection between "cold" and "war." Because new words and phrases appear, while many old ones cling like barnacles to our verbal vessels, the total number of words in a language constantly increases.Usage, on the other hand, does not.LInguists inform us that the average English speaker only uses about two hundred words. That's why it is so easy to make folks think you are smart by sticking a pin in a dictionary and dropping your selection into a conversation. This is a technique used to great effect by William F. Buckley, Jr. After typing the previous sentence, I did just that and came up with "seminivorous," which refers to an animal which feeds on seeds. Remember that.Televisionisms erode the diversity of spoken language with the pervasive introduction of code words and phrases. The result is easy to predict. Soon we will be down to approximately eighteen words. "Way cool. Not!""Yeah.""Just do it.""Right on! ""Been there.""Get a life.""Chill.""Whatever.""Later.""Yadda, yadda, yadda."It makes you wonder why there is such a fuss about teaching English to children and immigrants. Nearly anyone with a physically intact brain can learn eighteen words. I used to house-parent for severely developmentally disabled children, and even they had a grip on that quantity of language -- understanding it even if their speech was impaired. One sad side of this pop cultural vitiation of our language is that communication becomes duller and drabber. Sadder still is the knowledge that advertisers and television producers realize they can scatter their idiot phrases like seeds and the seminivorous audience will gobble them up to be parrotted over and over. Every time anyone uses the y-word, others who know the source are at least subconciously reminded of that show or ad campaign. Thus commercial interests splice advertising into everyday conversation as effectively as if they had surgically inserted silicon chips into our brains. Next time you hear the y-word, don't let yourself be suckered into seminivorosity. Don't think "clever." Think, "Gee, there are at least two hundred thousand words this person might have spoken, and here he is stuttering like Porky Pig on a blind date. Do I really need to hear this idiocy again?""Do I really need a new strain of flu?""Yadda, yadda, yadda."

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