The Insidious Pull of Pop Language

Posted on October 12, 2005

William Grimes of The New York Times discusses Leslie' Savan's new book, Slam Dunks and No-Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and, Like, Whatever (Knopf). Savan is horrified by the seepage into everyday speech of "pop language." Pop language -- hip phrases and lingo that is derived from advertisements and TV mostly -- is even used by politicians and those who should know better, according to Savan. Grimes thinks Savan is too uptight and that pop language keeps language fresh and changing.

"Saddam is toast." 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.


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").


Ms. Savan does not really approve of pop language. She worries that it clicks into place too easily and displaces complex thoughts. She is, too often, a scold, the sort of person who turns the lights on at a party and reminds everyone to drink in moderation. Again and again, she feels called upon to interrupt her narrative with a public service announcement, warning the reader that the easy pleasures of pop language come at a price, turning thinking citizens into shiny corporate pawns. There is an elitist fallacy at work here. Ms. Savan sees straight through the machinations of advertisers and understands the malevolent forces at work behind pop speech, the "subtle social and political trade-offs." Everyone else, apparently, is not quite smart enough to do the same.

Elitist fallacy? Whatever, dude.

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