Initially, I was going to write about all the annoying phrases polled about in the recent Marist survey. I was going to discuss why they irritate me (or why they don’t — Caroline Kennedy would have been happy to see I that have no problem with compulsive use of the phrase, “you know”). But, then I realized I use all of those expressions myself. At the end of the day (there’s one right there!), I have no business taking on the role of guardian of the English language, at least when it comes to the way other people speak.
Instead, I will turn the critical lens on my own irksome verbal tics. Do you ever have that feeling immediately after using a certain word that you wish you hadn’t and pause in disgust with yourself, much to the confusion of your partner in conversation? Well, these are the words that give me that feeling.
These terms are brothers in the family of inappropriately strong compliments. I use “amazing” so often that I am beginning to wonder if I really am so easily amazed. If you take me literally, I’ve been amazed by a sunset, the sound of a motorcycle engine, a soft plane landing, and a dog’s ability to catch a Frisbee. As for “brilliant,” I often use it when referring to a film, book or TV show I enjoyed. Did I really need to describe that Stephen Colbert sketch as “brilliant?” Couldn’t I have gone with “clever” or “well-done?” Obviously, the word loses a bit more of its luster every time it’s used. On a related note, another word used way too much is “genius.” It’s part of our culture of extreme flattery. This article from the Atlantic Monthly suggests the overuse of “genius” by pointing out its prevalence in discussions about football coaches. Do Shakespeare, Einstein, and Bill Belichick really belong in the same category?
Is it, really? Then why do I say this only when I’m not laughing? It’s a polite impulse, but it really results in a double-insult: not only do I think the joke is not funny, but I think the joke-cracker is gullible enough to believe that I express mirth not with laughter, but by declaring it outright. Anyone who truly wants to be polite should teach him or herself a convincing fake laugh.
You know what I mean?
When I use this in relation to a complex topic, it’s perfectly acceptable. If I’m explaining, say, how a neuron works (for the record, I don’t actually know how it works), then I am permitted to end a sentence with, “you know what I mean?” But, I should refrain if I’m explaining how to work the TV remote. I once had a supervisor who ended his critiques of my work with arched eyebrows, a cocked head and a conciliatory “you know what I mean?” I think he was trying to draw an affirmative response from me in place of explicit acceptance of his criticism. Every time I was tempted to say, “Yes, of course I know what you mean, and I disagree completely.”
What’re ya gonna do?
I use this expression too much. When I say it, I feel as though I’m trying to channel an overworked detective from a TV police drama — bags under his eyes, discussing a problem that just won’t go away. “It’s a tough situation” works better for me.
Or something like that
When I don’t know the exact answer, I’ll end my response with “or something like that,” just so you can’t hold me to it. It’s often replaced by the equally vague “or something to that effect.” Or, I’ll begin my sentence with “I think” or “I guess.” There should be an expression for expressions like these — perhaps “envagueners” or “imprecisioners.” You know, something in that vein.
This might be the most useless expression in my arsenal. Rarely do I use “I mean” to clarify some point that has been misunderstood — in that case, it would be acceptable. Instead, I use it as a completely unnecessary introduction to what I’m about to say. If you ask me if I think it’s going to rain, I might say, “I mean, there are clouds in the sky, and the air has that rainy smell… “. But, I have no idea how to define the role “I mean” has in that sentence. I mean, there’s just no reason for it to be there.
You might be wondering if there’s really any reason for me to eliminate these expressions from my conversational repertoire. It’s true that most discussions are informal and most interlocutors, if put under scrutiny, would be guilty of these small verbal crimes. But as any English teacher will tell you, while thought affects speech, the converse is true, too. When I say something is “amazing,” for example, I may be failing to process what I really think about it. The lack of precision and nuance in my spoken words diminishes the quality of my thoughts, which, when expressed, come out equally pedestrian. It can be a negative spiral of empty language.
So, while I would never tell someone to stop using a certain word or phrase, I would encourage them, in general, to put more effort into expressing themselves as best they can. They might start here, a site that provides the meanings and origins of scads of commonly used phrases, such as “take umbrage” and “cock and bull story.” Not only might they add to their stable of sayings, but they’d gain more insight into how the meanings of words and phrases evolve in unlikely, unpredictable ways.
You know what I mean?
10/7: “Whatever” Takes Top Honors as Most Annoying
Our Genius Problem (from the Atlantic Monthly)
Oxford’s Top Ten List of Irritating Expressions