Sun, Oct 16, 2005 - Page 19 News List

Pop language is like so now

Leslie Savan suggests anyone can become a little cooler by using vocabulary taken from various subcultures, advertising or politics


'Slam Dunks and No-brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and, Like, Whatever'
By Leslie Savan
Alfred A. Knopf
340 pages

"Saddam is toast." US Vice President Dick Cheney, trying to sell the Saudi ambassador on the invasion of Iraq, used the phrase, according to Bob Woodward's book Plan of Attack. Millions of Americans turn to the "toast" metaphor in their daily lives to describe someone, or something, that is, to use another vogue phrase, "so over." Like a Barry Manilow tune, it has crept into the mass brain and taken up permanent residence.

"Toast" has lots of company, as Leslie Savan amply documents in Slam Dunks and No-Brainers, her sharp, if wayward, analysis of the phenomenon she calls pop language. Pop is not slang, exactly, although it includes slang words like glitterati and fashionista. It's not argot or in-group terminology either,

because everyone recognizes it, understands it and uses it constantly. Words and phrases like "Don't go there," "Get over it," "You da man," "Duh" and the sneering "I don't think so" constitute a new subdivision of the English language, an attitude-projecting, allusive vocabulary derived from television and advertising and used by ordinary people to sell themselves as hip in the mildest, least offensive way possible.

"Light, self-conscious and theatrical, chockful of put-downs and exaggerated inflections, today's pop talk projects a personality that has mastered the simulation of conversation," Savan writes. "It's a sort of air guitar for the lips, seeking not so much communication as a confirmation that hey, we're cool."

Savan -- a former advertising columnist for The Village Voice and the author of "The Sponsored Life: Ads, TV, and American Culture" -- is definitely on to something, especially in her analysis of the sitcom-derived rhythms of pop speech, which almost seems to carry a built-in applause sign or laugh track. Pop phrases like "That is so last year," "Too much information" or "I hate it when that happens," Savan argues, "always speak of other people having spoken them."

In an inspired move, Savan compares the 1953 Disney cartoon Peter Pan with the 2002 sequel, Return to Never Land. The earlier version is remarkable for its lack of packaged phrases and slang. The sequel includes "In your dreams, Hook," "Put a cork in it," "Tell me about it," "You've got that right" and the inevitable "Don't even think about it."

Pop language is a bargain. Average Americans, instead of having to venture underground and master the slang of a subculture, can simply pick up the current put-downs and glib ripostes from television commercials or David Letterman. It allows them to channel, with no effort, up-to-the-minute dialects like Valley Girl ("whatever"), surfer ("bogus"), hip-hop ("bling") or drag queen ("please").

Pop language is pre-processed cool for a mass audience. It is, Savan writes, a "boldly bland" language for a new genus she calls the person nouvelle, the sort who is comfortable pushing the envelope, thinking outside the box and stepping up to the plate in pursuit of a win-win situation. "You don't have to be the sharpest tool in the shed -- as long as you're trained to say things like that," she writes.

Pop is a slippery concept, and Savan often loses her grip on it. "Gimme a break," even though it was the title of a television series, does not seem pop. It's a standard English response to express disagreement or irritation. It doesn't belong in the same discussion with "It's all good" or "Yesss!" Then again, it's hard to say, for long stretches of Slam Dunks and No-Brainers, what the discussion is. After her supercaffeinated early chapters on pop, Savan wanders hither and yon through the playing fields of current usage, emptying out her folders on computer-speak, regular-guy-speak and politically correct speech. Some of this is pop, but a lot isn't.

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