Vagueness: the linguistic virus in spoken language in the late 20th century
The decline and fall of American English, and stuff
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.
Uh-oh. It was a classic case of Vagueness, the linguistic virus that infected spoken language in the late twentieth century. Squirrel Woman sounded like a high school junior, but she appeared to be in her mid-forties, old enough to have been an early carrier of the contagion. She might even have been a college intern in the days when Vagueness emerged from the shadows of slang and mounted an all-out assault on American English.. In the spring of 1987 came the all-interrogative interview. I asked a candidate where she went to school.
“Columbia?” she replied. Or asked.
“And you’re majoring in . . .”
All her answers sounded like questions. Several other students did the same thing, ending declarative sentences with an interrogative rise. Something odd was happening. Was it guerrilla grammar? Had college kids fallen under the spell of some mad guru of verbal chaos? I began taking notes and mailed a letter to William Safire at the New York Times, urging him to do a column on the devolution of coherent speech. 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.
By autumn 1987, the job interviews revealed that “like” was no longer a mere slang usage. It had mutated from hip preposition into the verbal milfoil that still clogs spoken English today. Vagueness was on the march... read more: