Orwell Watch #6: “Like” and the culture of vagueness.


"...and I’m like, you know, ‘Whoa, that is so wow!’"

“Like.”  Need we say more?  Via Books Inq, we came across this description of “the culture of vagueness.” A suitable addition to our George Orwell Watch. “Nobody likes a grammar prig,” says Clark Whelton, a speechwriter for New York City mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani.  Then he goes on to become one.  At least a bit of one.  Nevertheless, he has a point.  He takes on the current usage of “like,” which has “a long and scruffy pedigree,” buried in the mid-20th century’s Holden Caulfield


I recently watched a television program in which a woman described a baby squirrel that she had found in her yard. “And he was like, you know, ‘Helloooo, what are you looking at?’ and stuff, and I’m like, you know, ‘Can I, like, pick you up?,’ and he goes, like, ‘Brrrp brrrp brrrp,’ and I’m like, you know, ‘Whoa, that is so wow!’ ” She rambled on, speaking in self-quotations, sound effects, and other vocabulary substitutes, punctuating her sentences with facial tics and lateral eye shifts. All the while, however, she never said anything specific about her encounter with the squirrel.

Continuing on with a pool of undergraduates he interviewed for the position of intern on Koch’s speechwriting staff, Whelton considers other current verbal tics: “The candidates seemed to be evading the chore of beginning new thoughts. They spoke in run-on sentences, which they padded by adding “and stuff” at the end.”  He also noted: “Double-clutching (‘What I said was, I said . . .’) sprang into the arena. Playbacks, in which a speaker re-creates past events by narrating both sides of a conversation (‘So I’m like, “Want to, like, see a movie?” And he goes, “No way. And I go . . .”), made their entrance.” He finally takes on the trend to make statements into questions for the “all-interrogative interview”:

Undergraduates, I said, seemed to be shifting the burden of communication from speaker to listener. Ambiguity, evasion, and body language, such as air quotes—using fingers as quotation marks to indicate clichés—were transforming college English into a coded sign language in which speakers worked hard to avoid saying anything definite. I called it Vagueness.

The Orwell connection to public life:

Is Vagueness simply an unexplainable descent into nonsense? Did Vagueness begin as an antidote to the demands of political correctness in the classroom, a way of sidestepping the danger of speaking forbidden ideas? Does Vagueness offer an undereducated generation a technique for camouflaging a lack of knowledge?

More here. A postscript:  Some more thoughts on “vocabulary substitutes”:  How about all those emoticons to signal emotions the reader may not “get” from the text?  Or the insertion of verbal cues  — e.g., “Sigh,” “Snark,” “lol,” or, to suggest a lazy sort of irony, “ummm” — because the words alone cannot guide us to the writer’s intention? (In the case of lol, it’s become little more than a compulsive written tic, a space filler, even when no humor is intended.)  Or how about “Thank You” cards, with THANK YOU written across the front, because the sender couldn’t express the words convincingly in cursive, in his or her very own hand?

Collect the whole set!

Orwell Watch #5: Before we shoot off our mouths again…

Orwell Watch #4: Jared Loughner:  Madman, terrorist, or both?

Orwell Watch #3:  Please. No “gifting” this Christmas.

Orwell Watch #2: Murder in Yeovil

Orwell Watch #1: Paul Krugman vs. George Orwell. (Hint: Orwell wins.)

Valentine’s Day postscript (hat tip, Jim Erwin):

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3 Responses to “Orwell Watch #6: “Like” and the culture of vagueness.”

  1. Quid plura? | “Crossing the central reservation of my imagination…” Says:

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  2. sign language words Says:

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  3. sign language words Says:

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