How I would In order In order In regards Welcome Smith begins Not a lot
to Speak Good
seriously like to utilize this space in order to assist you, the reader, to
grow your communication skills and essentialize your ability to formulate effective
interpersonalized data-sharing capabilities. The ultimate upside of this system
is guaranteed to positively impact your life, and at absolutely no cost to you.
to effectualize this proposed program with the utmost proactivity, last week
I initialized a telephone
uplink with Mr. Ken Smith. Mr. Smith has generated a plethora of crucial publications.
These would include not only but also his co-authorated Roadside America;
Ken’s Guide to the Bible, a broad overview of all the "sex,"
"violence" and "outright lies" bracketed within that document;
Raw Deal, a unique compendium of hard luck stories; and Mental Hygiene,
an holistic approach to analyzing the gestalt of those "old-school"
to most effectively prioritize my and Mr. Smith’s time-value, I offered
him the freedom to "talk his face off," within the broad parameters
of what I hoped and intended to be a major free-floating exchange of ideas.
I have often found this to be a critical methodology.
the case of Mr. Smith, however, I swiftly discovered that I didn’t know
what the fuck either of us was talking about. And nor did he either.
to the world of Junk English, a slim but quality new tome currently in
the process of publicationization by my friends at Blast Books (144 pages, $12.95).
Consider Smith, if you will, a new Strunk and White for these overload-of-jargon
times. He spent a year immersing himself in bad speech and worse writing, from
sources incorporating everything from junk mail to advertising to bureaucratic
speech to The New York Times. The ultimate result is a handy guide
to bloated phrasing, useless adjectives and generally crapulous word usage,
with "abstract adjectives" (like major, positive, quality, serious)
and ends with the hideous euphemisms of "warfare English" ("soft
ordnance" for napalm being my favorite example). Along the way he chides
us with baleful humor for the way we try to sound smarter by misusing words
like utilize, factor, aspect and community; how we try to be more impactful
(okay, sorry) by replacing a perfectly good word like "big" with the
more ostentatious "enormous," or going for "crucial" when
all we really mean is "important"; inappropriate business, government
and military terms that have seeped into common language; advertising’s
insidious and manipulative use of words to con and confuse (as in the way "free"
and "hassle-free" in ads always mean the opposite of what they seem
to); and common dumbass mistakes, like using "quotation marks" for
emphasis or saying "cynical" when you mean skeptical or wary (one
of my pet peeves). He also coins some useful terms like "jargon gridlock,"
in which communication is blocked when people in a specialized field–computer
geeks, let’s say–forget that no one else knows what the hell they’re
of Smith’s examples will be new to anyone who cares about language, but
Junk English is written in such a humorous, nonthreatening way that it
might actually be of some use to the rest of us who don’t speak or write
too good. I won’t go so far as to say it’s English Grammar for
Dummies, but it’s in that direction.
Not a lot
I’m not an expert. I’m just as ignorant as everyone else. Which is
kinda one of the reasons I wrote the book.
the impetus for the book?
Oh, I was
mad. The usual thing that makes me write books. I guess I thought it was necessary.
There’re a lot of books about grammar and usage–it’s not like
it’s a new idea. But it struck me that most of these books are written
for people who already know a lot about the English language, preaching to the
choir. And most people, frankly, most Americans don’t read Harper’s
or Atlantic Monthly or The New Yorker. Their exposure to the English
language is through people who don’t know any more than they do, or it’s
through politicians or commercials or p.r. spokespeople. So we have several
generations of people who want to sound intelligent, who want to write well
and speak well, but the role models are either uninformed or manipulative. I
thought that what was needed was a little book that would call attention to
the most common examples of English abuse and misuse. Very simple, easy to understand,
fun–you know, write it for the ordinary speaker and writer of the language,
which I consider myself to be. I am not a linguist, I’m not a grammarian.
I’m just somebody who’s used the English language for a lot of years.
I thought that was a book that was needed.
telling people, "Please hone it down to what it is you’re trying to
say, instead of ballooning your language."
why do we speak? Why do we write? We do it to communicate to other people. And
anything that gets in the way of other people is bad.
of your sources are trying to do the opposite. Advertising copy is trying to
manipulate you. Politicians balloon their speech because they’re trying
to take up air time. I think you’ve identified a really interesting problem,
which is that the rest of us have adopted language that really is meant to obfuscate
and manipulate, to the point where we can’t say what it is we really want
to say anymore.
we don’t know! We’ve never been taught that there is a simple way
to say things. Or that what we’re saying is in fact not what we mean. We’re
all talking to each other like idiots now, but we’re such idiots we don’t
even recognize that we’re talking like idiots.
I see a
series here–More Junk English, Still More Junk English…
Oh, I don’t
know. This book was pretty painful to do.
bet. You read a lot of junk.
I sure did.
And once you start, you become aware of it everywhere. It becomes that much
more horrible. It’s in The New York Times. My examples are
pulled from everywhere. They’re pulled from the finest journalism we have.
not saying much. What if someone says to you, "What difference does any
of this make? The language is always changing. You’re just being an old
purist fuddy-duddy about this. We all know what we mean, so what the hell."
language is always being changed by the people who use it, creating new words
and assigning new definitions to those that already exist. Much of the change
typical of junk English, however, is born of expediency, not creativity or accuracy.
We write "positive" or "impact" not because it best expresses
what we mean but because it’s the first word that pops into our heads,
and it does so because we hear and read it used, over and over, by those who
know no differently. Change is not synonymous with "improve"–it
can sometimes be for the worse. When we stop speaking and writing junk English,
that will be a change for the better.
How to Speak
Max Decharne gave himself what sounds like a much more fun assignment when he
decided to do the research for Straight from the Fridge, Dad: A Dictionary
of Hipster Slang (Broadway Books, 193 pages, $12.95). It reads like the
annotations to a Mezz Mezzrow or Mickey Spillane book, or maybe a Cab Calloway
anthology. Everything’s here, from the origins of common slang like "cool"
and "hip" and "jive" to noir, beatnik and jazzbo exotica
like bread pan (vagina), holding down a package (drunk), Abyssinia
(I’ll be seein’ ya), hop in my kemp (get in my car), push-note
(dollar bill), cake cutter (swindler), Tucson blanket (a hobo’s
newspaper bedding), elevated (drunk) and call some hogs (snore).
In his introduction,
Decharne notes that the great preponderance of 20th-century coolspeak began
among jazz musicians and gangsters, and it’s only relatively recently that
it became respectable and, yes, cool with the general populace. "The overall
tone of hipster slang is a kind of deadpan cynicism–not entirely unexpected
from a section of society that often spent much of its time trying to avoid
the law and scrape the rent money together," he writes.
will read from and sign Straight from the Fridge on Friday, Nov. 9, 6
p.m., at See Hear, 59 E. 7th St. (betw. 1st & 2nd Aves.), 505-9781.
How to Talk
Books has published a new, larger edition of our friend Kenneth Goldsmith’s
Soliloquy (489 pages, $17.95), which originally appeared in an extremely
limited edition in 1997. Soliloquy is every single word Goldsmith spoke
during a week in April 1996. Before publishing it as a book, he plastered the
text over every surface of a Soho gallery in ’97, to what he concedes was
a "lukewarm reception."
not a book I’d read cover to cover, but I love to dip into it a page or
two at a time. Like all of Kenny’s projects (e.g., Fidget, which
recorded every move his body made in a day), it comes off as either massively
narcissistic or just a bad case of OCD, and its endearingly feckless babble
reads somewhere between Andy Warhol’s A and one of Beckett’s
endless solipsisms. At times Soliloquy reminds you of the unconscious
poetry of everyday speech–and often its banality and disjointedness. Here’s
an excerpt I hit at random:
my animal. OK, I gotta run upstairs. Bets. What is she? Alright, I’ll pick
her up when I come get my computer. C’mon, pal. Let’s go. I’ll
see you guys I’ll see you guys in just a little bit. C’mon, Bet. C’mon,
baby. Oh boy. Bets come. Good girl. Yes. Are you getting food? Uh, you are.
Bets. Come Bets. Bets come. Oh boy oh boy. What a day. Hey. How you doing? Good
to see you. Where’s do you mind the dog do you want me to? Yes, it’s
Babette. Yeah, she’s 7. How you doin’? Good. Where’s Daniel?
Brian. I kept thinking Daniel. I don’t know why I just put my shoes on
it’s so nice out. Maybe we’ll sit outside and get a coffee? Yeah.
Where is he from? I see. Huh. That’s good. Uh huh. I don’t know her,
no. Let’s let’s go outside I’ve got about a half hour and then
I’ve got my my, uh, I’ve got all these. I just had lunch with my mother.
Yeah, she’s just in seeing Cheryl’s show. What? Sure, I’m from
Long Island. My whole 35 years, I guess 31 of them have been spent within 20
minutes of where we’re standing right now. Yeah. Yeah, sure, we’ll
all get a fresh, a little fresh air. It’s beautiful is it still warm out?
Great. Great. Yeah. Anything to get out. Alright g’wan go ahead, g’wan.
Go on, Bets. Babette go on. What are you waiting for? You waiting for your leash,
OK. Here it is. Same old dog…"