The Power of Pop Language
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The very name, the USA Patriot Act, is a reminder of the power of language. It was easy to support and hard to oppose a bill with that title back in 2001.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We've been talking to a writer who tracks some surprisingly powerful words that we use every day. Leslie Savan has been exploring pop language, especially the phrases that people can use aggressively like, `Don't go there,' and `Hello!' Her book is called "Slam Dunks and No-Brainers."
Ms. LESLIE SAVAN ("Slam Dunks and No Brainers"): These are phrases that are used everywhere from preschool to the highest officials in the land. When former CIA Director George Tenet and his deputy at the CIA were trying to convince the White House that not only could we find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but that they had a case that would convince the public, the CIA deputy laid out this detailed plan, you know, with statistics, satellite photos, numbers, and the response was almost like a big yawn, almost as if they were saying, `Boring.' And...
INSKEEP: And then the question came back, `Are you really sure that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.'
Ms. SAVAN: Yes, and George Tenet, who had been silent up till then, jumped off the couch and said, `Don't worry. It's a slam-dunk case.' From that point on, the confidence was built up.
INSKEEP: You're not talking about pop culture phrases or pop culture jargon in general. You're going after a very specific kind of phrase. Can you define what it is for me please.
Ms. SAVAN: These are popular phrases by all means, but they're the kind of phrases that have a certain glamour to them, and that because of that glamour, they're more persuasive. You listen to what--the sound of the phrase, the sound of the power behind it, `I don't think so,' or, `Hello,' `Please,' `Yes!' You hear that and you hear the sound of millions of other people who've heard it before and who are responding in a sort of pre-programmed way to it as well.
INSKEEP: When I was listening to you just now, I was reminded of another point you make which is that it's not necessarily the language but the way that it's pronounced or accented or emphasized that makes it a pop culture phrase of interest.
Ms. SAVAN: Right. Many times it seems like this is just slang or just jargon, but it's not. These are phrases that are pronounced with a certain inflection and a certain attitude that makes them rise above the crowd of other phrases.
INSKEEP: And you argue that when somebody says, `It's a no-brainer,' that they're actually just trying to get you not to think about it, it might actually be a `brainer' if that's the opposite thing.
Ms. SAVAN: Yes, it could well be a `brainer.' Like all of these pop phrases, they come about because we need something expressed, but when it becomes used in ads as it is used in so many ads--I think I counted, I don't know, 15 different ads it was used in a one-year period recently--no-brainer is saying not only do you not have to think about buying this product or subscribing to this service, you are going to feel like millions of other people. You feel like you belong more because you don't have to think like all the other people don't have to think about it.
INSKEEP: Did your research bring you to the story of the actor Russell Crowe? This is the incident which made the news in which Russell Crowe had a problem in a hotel that he was in. He was trying to call his wife in another country. The phone call wouldn't go through. He called down to the front desk and complained, and the clerk responded, `Whatever'...
Ms. SAVAN: Right. Yes.
INSKEEP: ...or, `Whatever.'
Ms. SAVAN: And because he was appar--he claimed to be so incensed over that attitude of, `Whatever,' he flew into his frenzy and these words can incense us. It's true. And a lot of parents, oh, my gosh, we hate, `Duh!' `Whatever' or `Hello!' coming from our kids, often as young as four years old. They're sort of telling you that you're not hip enough or cleaver enough to make the audition for their own TV show. You know, you're just not with it. And to use a very old phrase, `with it.'
INSKEEP: One of the things that we're conveying here is people using language to close off discussion or to not think for themselves.
Ms. SAVAN: Yes.
INSKEEP: What are some things you can say as an alternative as opposed to saying...
Ms. SAVAN: Well...
INSKEEP: ...`Don't go there'? I mean, the alternative, I suppose, is going there.
Ms. SAVAN: ...pop language--you know, when you start to use a lot of it, what happens is it does foreclose thought, I think. It does tell everyone not to go any further. And one of the reasons it does that is because it can convince people of an argument not based on the merits of the argument or whether something is even true or not but on how much it sounds like a punch line. These are the stars of our sentences and they make us feel special and unique when we say it, but the irony is, of course, that they're used by millions and millions.
INSKEEP: That's the author of a book on the power of pop phrases.
I want to check something. How do I pronounce your name. Is it Savan (pronounced Sa-van), Savan (pronounced Say-van), Savan (pronounced Sa-von)?
Ms. SAVAN: Number two, Savan (pronounced Say-van).
Ms. SAVAN: Right.
INSKEEP: Leslie Savan wrote "Slam Dunks and No-Brainers."
This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.