Slang has her, like, totally bummed

  • Julie Muhlstein / Herald Columnist
  • Thursday, October 19, 2000 9:00pm
  • Local News

Hel-lo. Look what I did. I know better.

Yet there it was, in a recent column for all to read: "I hear you," I wrote.

It’s bad enough — or should I say lame enough? — that I pepper my speech with every inane catch phrase of the day. Now I catch my slang leaching onto the printed page.

That’s, like, not something I want to happen. Hear what I’m sayin’?

For some time I’ve been bugged, ‘scuse me, I have been vexed by the way I talk. My liberal use of slang belies my intellect. I’m smarter than I sound. I think. I hope. Hear what I’m sayin’?

I hang out with kids, ‘scuse me, I spend a lot of time with teen-agers. Some of their stuff rubs off, and I don’t mean Clearasil or an affinity for Eminem.

Dude, their words rub off. Totally.

That’s how I find myself, in a grown-up meeting or interview, wanting to crawl under a rock when I hear "what-EVer" or "hel-lo" pop out of my mouth. I might as well be reading from the "Clueless" movie script. Two years ago, I would sooner have died than employ the slang use of "sucks." Now, every so often, I use it. And I hate it.

Other legitimate words are creeping into the language with vague new meanings. Think about it the next time you hear "exactly" or "don’t go there."

"Exactly" means precisely. It isn’t incorrect to use it instead of "I agree." But every time? All the time? Members of the Toastmasters International group are aware of "um" counters in their audience. When they speak, the counters help keep their prepared talks filler-free.

What if we put an "exactly" counter in every office and schoolroom?

Filler words are pet peeves for Anna Kruse, a speech and English teacher at Marysville-Pilchuck High School.

"That’s one of the major things I grade on as the kids start giving their speeches," Kruse said. "Like, um and uh, anyways, kinda and stuff; different people use different ones."

Is Kruse an offender?

"I use OK a lot when it’s time to make a transition in the classroom. ‘O-kay,’ I’ll say. It’s not really OK at all," she said.

I begged Kruse for free advice. I’d like to sound at least as articulate as her high school students.

"The best trick is to know what you want to say. People who don’t know what they want to say feel compelled to fill in the space while they think, to sound like they’re still on. It’s a habit we get into conversationally to hold the floor."

Hmm. I need to know what I want to say. That’s easier said than done. Definitely.

The birthplace of a catch phrase is often commercial. The hot nonexistent word of the moment is "whassup," from the Budweiser beer ads.

In a Detroit Free Press article, pals Paul Williams and Fred Thomas claimed they greeted each other with "whassup?" for 15 years before appearing in the commercials. Now, they’re basking in their 15 minutes of fame.

Wait a couple years. Whassup will be as tired as comic Steve Martin’s "excuuuuuuse me," from his old "Saturday Night Live" gag, or as overused as "mother of all (fill in the blank)" from the days of the Persian Gulf War.

Back in high school, Kruse tried adding a slangy ingredient to the language pot.

"I’ve told my students about it," said Kruse, who graduated in 1968. "A beer company in the Midwest somewhere had a label out that said ‘Don’t Be Bitter.’ My father brought home a tag that said ‘Don’t Be Bitter’ on it, and I stuck it on my locker. I told my friend, ‘Let’s just get people to say that.’

"Every time we talked to anyone, we said ‘don’t be bitter,’ and within two days everyone was saying it. I went to a school on the south side of Chicago, there were 1,800 students. It swept the school in two days. It just took off. It’s very easy to start stuff like that, it’s all word of mouth."

Don’t be bitter. I like it.

I wonder if anyone back in Chicago thought to tell the future speech teacher, "You go, girl."

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