Hel-LO-O! Pop talk is totally everywhere

By Phil Kloer, 2005, COX News Service
Posted on Mon, Dec. 12, 2005

YOU KNOW pop talk. You hear pop talk. You think maybe you're one of the few who avoid pop talk?

Yeah, right. I don't think so.

Here's the deal. We all use them, the phrases from hell, 24/7, big time. Not really slang, or jargon, they're snappy little word combos that everybody uses. Sort of Language McNuggets.

Sometimes these phrases age fast, and you say something like "talk to the hand" and someone goes "Hel-LO? What are you thinking? That is sooo five minutes ago."

Other times, you say the right thing and you shoot, you score! It's sweeeet. And you're like, Yessss! It's all good.

Leslie Savan shoots -- she scores! -- in her new book "Slam Dunks and No-Brainers" (Knopf, $23.95). It has the subtitle "Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and Like, Whatever," but what it really does is chart how totally pop talk has overtaken our lives. Not just on the playground and in high school hallways, but among the high and mighty.

What was she thinking?

"Most books and studies have been about slang or jargon," she says. "I was trying to do something about a newer phenomenon. There's been so much intrusion of the media and marketing into our lives that it required a different label, and pop works for me in so many ways."

Not only does the pop in "pop talk" stand for popular (uh, duh!), but it's language that pops out of its surroundings, she writes, "as if the words came with built-in applause signs and laugh tracks."

It's platitude as attitude, and "true pop pops for everyone, regardless of race, age, class, religion or occupation," Savan writes. "Pop permeates us all. Militia men, gangsta rappers, soccer moms and all their children traffic in 'Yeah, right, Not even close' and 'You just don't get it.'"

Pop talk: It's not just for alienated adolescents anymore.

This kind of language has always existed, from obscene graffiti on the walls of ancient Rome to the tavern talk of Shakespeare's day. What's different now, says Savan, is how the entire culture uses the same set of phrases at the same time, the result of our 24/7 mediasphere.

To prove her point, she runs through beaucoup examples of how the establishment loves pop talk as much as the kids hanging out in the food court. In the 2004 presidential campaign, both George Bush and John Kerry used variations of "Bring It On," just like the movie of that title about high school cheerleaders. Both were applauded for how tough they sounded -- not how fourth-grade.

"Let's not go there," Colin Powell, then secretary of State, warned a congressional hearing on Iraq. TV news shows, once bastions of English with a stiff posture, are now all up in your face with their pop lingo.

Try to keep up.

Advertisers love pop talk, and not just Levi's and Nickelodeon. The payoff line in a Morgan Stanley investments commercial last year was a banker dude saying "Sweeeet!" just like the film character Napoleon Dynamite. Buick declared, "It's all good."

Sometimes an ad misses the point, though, as when McDonald's promoted its double cheeseburger with the pop-talk phrase "I'd hit it," and only found out once the ads were on TV that that meant "I'd have sex with it."

Busted!

There is no expiration date on a particular piece of pop talk. Sometimes the kids have stopped saying it, and the adults have adopted it; sometimes the cool kids are all over it, and everyone else is clueless; sometimes one college has dropped it just as another college has discovered it.

Some are obviously history, though. (There's even a whole subcategory of pop talk to describe outdated pop talk: "so five minutes ago," "been there, said that.") Put out to pasture in the pop-talk world: Whassssup?, Talk to the hand, No way! Way!

You go, girlfriend -- going, going, gone.

"Sometimes these words go through cycles," says Savan. Indeed, some people are still using "totally," which soared to popularity in the '80s as an un-ironic intensifier, while others are using it in a mocking manner, with the finger-wiggling quote marks meant to be understood.

It's all in how you say it

A lot of pop talk, author Savan and the kids at St. Jude the Apostle Catholic School in north Atlanta agree, is about sarcasm and put-downs. "It's like an art," says eighth-grader Hunter Asip, although it's an art in which millions of people are sometimes painting the same painting, one titled "Like I Care."

It can even be how you say the word rather than the word itself. Elizabeth Roberts, another eighth-grader at St. Jude, can demonstrate how many syllables and musical notes a teenage girl can put into an exasperated Hel-LO-O. "Whenever I say that," she says, "my mom always says, 'Are you saying I'm stupid?'"

Gee. Ya think?

Thus does a simple, mannerly "thank you" turn into a clipped, sarcastic "thank you," to which one possible response is the two-syllable "Puh-leeze!" Savan calls this "when nice words go mean."

"These weapon words, there's so many of them to choose from," says Savan. "Obviously people have always been angry, but when you say, 'I don't think so!' in that certain tone, you are accessing the power of the millions of people who have said that."

You're waiting for the laugh track, the applause sign, to acknowledge that you've won, you've one-upped someone verbally.

Go ahead, let loose a little yessss!

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