The Irritations of Modern Life: 24: Slang by Kate Mulvey

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The Independent Culture
LAST WEEKEND my boyfriend and I went our separate ways. Not because he was a philandering rotter or a football-mad Neanderthal; it was more a question of words. "But the bottom line, Kate, is like..."

I stopped him right there. It was no good; the snoring and the dirty socks I could put up with, the fluent cliche I could not. No matter how good he looked in his Kenzo suit and Gucci loafers, when he started speaking like an American salesman, he might as well have been Quasimodo. And yes, I know I sound like a verbal pedant, but it is not a question of fastidiousness, but one of aesthetics. The phrase, "the bottom line" is derived from American business-talk and refers to the last line on a financial statement. This may be appropriate to businessmen, discussing profit and loss, but it sounds clumsy and inelegant when out of context. This American inspired sloven-speak is just plain ugly.

The great offender, which has slipped insidiously into the English language, is that ubiquitous word "like", an Americanism that has become so entrenched in our everyday speak that we don't even know it's there - it is delivered without any meaning and acts as a verbal Polyfilla.

There have always been slang and subversions of so-called correct language. The beatniks of the Fifties sat around listening to progressive jazz with their own hip jargon. "Stay cool, daddy-o" was not just lazy speak, but a conscious expression of freedom from the Establishment, which sorted out the rebels from the "squares".

In the Sixties, when young people went around with a flower in their hair and the greeting "right on, brother", it indicated solidarity. Youth- speak has always tried to pervert the norm. Words such as "bad" and "wicked", straight from the hip-hop culture in America, are crucial to the demarcation of the adult and teenage worlds.

Dumb speak, however, has nothing to do with a tribal subcultural language or a Sixties cry for individualism. It is unconscious, disrupting the flow of our everyday language like a nervous tic. These verbal glitches spew from our mouths like ectoplasm, a sort of ungrammatical disease, spreading unknowingly like a cold virus.

Ameri-speak is everywhere. Turn on the radio or television and you may as well be on planet Thicko. Instead of aspiring to high presentation standards, it has become socially desirable to sound like a yob. Now, dare to speak standard English and you are considered to be pompous and elitist. Recently, as a guest on a daytime chat show, I managed to come across as a stuffed shirt because I hadn't mastered the art of "pop" speak.

After the introduction, the producer strode up to me; I sounded too nobby for the audience, she said, standing there in combat trousers and Puffa jacket. So, instead of sounding like a disgruntled Miss Jean Brodie, all tight-lipped and strait-laced, I shall fling my dictionary to the wind and get with the programme. Because, like, at the end of the day, if you can't beat them, join them - y'know what I mean?