Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"Wassup?" She emoted.

RHYS BOWEN:  At one stage on Jungle Red we tried to keep Tuesday as a literary-related day, so I'm restoring that idea with some musings about language.

There are many reasons I enjoy setting my books in the first half of the Twentieth Century and I was reminded of one of them yesterday when I was watching TV and a character said ‘Yo. Wassup?”
I realized how far our use of language has sunk since the times I write about. People in those days had large vocabularies. They engaged in unhurried conversation. They read. They listened to books being read to them and they had time to express themselves eloquently. They wrote long, descriptive letters to each other. I still have some letters that my grandmother and great aunt wrote. They begin, “My dearest sister. I hope missive finds you in good health. As I pick up my pen to write to you I send you my fondest thoughts of greeting winging their way across the miles to you. “

 All that instead of “Wassup?” They had time, you see. They could not phone, text or even see each other often, so letters were important. My great-grandmother decided to go to Australia when she was in her eighties. In those days that meant goodbye forever and a letter from home would take several months. I’ve often thought how poignant it must have been that a loved one might not know for a long time that their relative across the world was sick or even dead. They wouldn’t know of a new baby or a marriage. No wonder letters were so detailed, so expressive.
                What a contrast to our means of expression today. Seriously I think we are reverting to the stone age. Wassup is only one step away from pointing at the mouth and grunting when we want food.

My personal pet peeve is the phrase “My bad.”
My bad what? When did bad stop being an adjective and turn into a noun?
When people today say “My bad,” my characters would have said, “I’m frightfully sorry but in a momentary lapse of concentration I seem to have knocked over my glass and spilled a few drops of liquid on your skirt. I must apologize most profusely.”

Another pet peeve is “No problem.”
I asked a passing waiter if he would refill my water glass and he said “No problem.”
Of course there’s no problem, I wanted to yell. It’s your job to fill water glasses. That is why you are walking around with a pitcher.
I seriously believe that some of the problems of troubled youth come because they simply cannot express themselves eloquently. They don’t have the vocabulary to tell others what they fell.
“Know what I mean? Know what I mean?” They demand and unfortunately we don’t know what they mean because they can’t tell us.
The interesting thing is that in the times I write about—the 1900s through the 1930s a good vocabulary wasn’t just confined to the upper classes. Read the diaries of women in the Westward movement. So expressive and touching as they described the death of a child, the loneliness of the wilderness.  And read the works of Frederick Douglass, a black slave. Majestic prose.
So where did we go wrong? Is it that we are so short of time these days? That children are not encouraged to read? That families don’t have time to converse? That we are so addicted to our iPhones that we will soon be speaking entirely in texting shortcuts? I heart U2.

I’m going back to the nineteen thirties now and not one of my characters will say “Like” and “Y’know.” Or even Wassup?

So do you have any pet peeves about our modern vocabulary, or lack thereof?


  1. I share your frustration over the deterioration of language and conversation these days. The constant “ummm” and “you know” are my pet peeves, but wassup, my bad, and no problem are just as annoying.

    I can’t really account for this conversational lapse [too many video games, perhaps?]; instead I shall unhappily make the sad observation that reading does not seem to be high on the list of favorite pastimes for many young people today. They have no idea what they’re missing . . . .

  2. Oh, Rhys, I'm so glad you mentioned "No problem." Infuriating. And it's even worse when it's shortened to "No prob."
    Lenita Virtue

  3. I love you, Rhys. Thanks for making me laugh at myself. Y'know? Most of the big words in my family while I was growing up were directed at me. "Don't be so pedantic." "Do you think you might work a bit on your sense of confraternity?" "What? You'd rather watch cartoons than explicate a poem?" "You want me to read Little Red Riding Hood, because it's so dramatic? How about Eliot Norton's review of King Lear instead?"

  4. "My bad" is so funny--the first time someone said it to me, I was utterly baffled.

    ANd yes, Joan I have friends of a certain age-YOUNG--who never read at all. Not anything. NOt books, not newspapers. I am baffled by that, too.

    MY pet peeve is "sick." as in "That's sick!" which means it's wonderful. Really?

  5. All is not lost. My daughter, 14, is a voracious reader. She went away overnight and her biggest question was "what book should I bring?" Her friend also reads Rather Large Books. Do not text my girl if you cannot use whole words and proper punctuation ("after all, I have a whole keyboard, Mom") and emoticons are for embellishment, not communication.

    I say "no problem" all the time - and I don't see myself stopping. Spoken language changes. I'm sure if you jumped in a TARDIS and went to the 1930s, the older generation there would be bemoaning the loss of something in written/spoken words. Paperbacks were supposed to be the death of literature, and dime store novels were rotting the brains of youth, right?

    The thing that makes me shake my head is when professionals, say folks in journalism or professional communications, can't use grammar properly. A recent newscast, "He said him and Brown" - really? No, really?

  6. "LOL" has become the new "like". Rather than express a full response, we get LOL. It's like a holiday card from someone you only hear from once a year and they have their name printed on with no message. Why bother?
    I worry that people cannot put together cogent thoughts. Muddled thoughts=muddle actions.
    Suffice it to say, I am in total agreement with you.

  7. Oh Rhys, we sing the same tune on this, especially the "no problem" habit. It's as annoying as constant swearing. I have no idea of its cause, but would love to figure out an effective way to address it.

    I say "thank you." Store clerk says "no problem." It would be churlish for me to say "I didn't say there was a problem, I was thanking you for your help." But I am often tempted.

    I fear that like bamboo or bittersweet, this language habit soon will become so deep-rooted there will be no eradicating it, and we'll have to live the rest of our lives cringing in the checkout line.

    Of course, I should confess to my own linguistic sins. The Maine vernacular includes use of the word "wicked" to amplify another word, as in "she is wicked smart" or "it is wicked hot today."

    I have be heard to say such things. Mea culpa.

  8. We writers love words and so have a certain fondness for a pre-television period when words, rather than images, ruled supreme.

    And most of us here are of an age typically concerned more with preservation than invention.

    In combination, those traits make us (and I include myself here) deplore the decline in language as we know it.

    But in fairness to my grandparents born in the 19th century, I do remember them gnashing their teeth that Latin was no longer required

    "How can you know what anything means?" they would say.

    "Like, man," I'd respond, "you, like, get it from the context. Y'know?"

    ~ Jim

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  10. Yes. Mary Sutton, I too am frustrated by newscasters who don't know basic grammar. I often phone local stations to call attention to such lapses.

    On the other hand, I find "diss" more effective in casual conversation than, say, "denigrate."

    I've never said "My bad," but like the "You know it" of my teenage years, it was one of those cooler phrases one wanted to find the occasion to use. (I think it has run its course.) You want to sound with it-- and sometimes a new phrase says more than an old one. "Props to" someone for doing something seems to mean a little bit more than "congratulations," doesn't it?

  11. Ellen, you hit on the key point for me. In casual conversation, I can tolerate almost anything. The minute you elevate it to a professional level, my expectations go up.

  12. Hi Rhys,
    You hit my 2 biggest pet peeves - "my bad" and "no problem." I work with inner city teens and we spend a lot of time trying to eradicate some of these language tics from their vocabulary.

    This topic interests me because last week on YouTube I watched an in-depth news report from the 1970s - Dan Rather on gangs in L.A. As he interviewed these kids, I was amazed by how articulate they were. Supposedly uneducated urban thugs, but they expressed themselves in ways I cannot imagine kids in their same circumstances doing today.

    I understand that language evolves, but I agree with you - it's such a shame when this evolution is taking people away from their ability to communicate with one another.

  13. I like verbing words. It weirds language.

    --Calvin and Hobbes.

    It must be a generational thing because some of those phrases don't bother me. "My bad" is one I use upon occasion, but never in place of a real apology. I tend to use it in a sports game or sarcastically when I play a Wild Draw 4 in Uno.

    "No problem." Again, it doesn't really bother be.

    However, "Wassup" can drop from the vocabulary of every right this second.

    And don't get me started on how frequently people swear. At my job, there is a sign posted about swearing at work (against company policy). Everyone but me does it and for things you don't need to swear about. That is the decline of language right there, worse than all these other things combined.

  14. I have to confess I've fallen into the "No problem" rut. I'm trying to consciously replace it with "My pleasure" or "Certainly!"

    The Boy says "My bad," and it does grate (although I know he means well.) I suspect it's a young person's linguistic tic, in the way that my 13-year-old uses "like" all the time. You don't hear adults saying that.

    The bit of modern usage that truly drives me batty: "impacted" instead of affected. This isn't something teens are guilty of - I hear reporters on NPR using this, for heaven's sake! "The eduction bill will impact new school construction." All I can picture are classrooms being crushed. Previous generations could parse the difference between affect and effect, why can't ours?

  15. Oh yes, Mark. Another pet peeve is the amount of swear words added unnecessarily. I do confess that I do say things are "a bloody nuisance" which my grandmother and aunts deemed t be swearing.

    But teens seem to use the f word all the time.

  16. I must confess that I feel the same way about "My bad." It drives me up the wall. It makes my teeth ache.

    Why does everything have to be shortened into some sort of mini-speak?

  17. I'll tell you about a pleasant experience. We were at a nice seafood restaurant in Galveston. Our waiter was pretty new; he'd just moved from Kentucky and still had that lovely drawl. His response to any request was always "my pleasure." Loved it.

  18. Ah, Rhys, the decline of letter writing is such a lamentable loss. Those missives that have given us insight into both the ordinary and extraordinary of people's lives throughout the ages cannot be replaced by emails and texts. So much history has been accessible through letters, and now I wonder how that void will be overcome.

    The expression or word that makes my blood boil is "whatever." If, for example, one were to correct the waiter who offered up "no problem" as a response, I fear that waiter's reaction would be the dismissive "whatever." It reeks of rudeness and disrespect. Adults and youth both use the word as a means to end a conversation with the abrupt sentiment that that person doesn't give a fig what you think.

    Now, the good news for me is that my granddaughters read and are developing quite an expressive vocabulary. The thirteen-year-old was most concerned last week about what book she was taking on a three-day trip to the lake. I am more often than not her addiction supplier. She comes to spend the night, and we both must read in bed. My five-year-old granddaughter never ceases to amaze me with her advanced vocabulary, using words over which many adults would flounder. Both girls will ask what a word means when presented with an unfamiliar one. Of course, I'm absolutely in heaven with all of this reading and wording emanating from them. My two adult children were and are readers and quite expressive, too. I think it helps when adults don't talk down to children, and instead, explain a word choice.

  19. Wassup? Someone stole the response I wrote this morning:-)

    Anyway, I was very glad Ramona mentioned "it is what it is." I hate that expression. To me, it feels like the speaker is trying to control the other person in the conversation, or to tell the person that his/her problem does NOT matter to the speaker.

    "No problem" and "my bad" are also on my list of annoying responses. It's interesting how so many of us have the same pet peeves regarding language!

    When I was a youngster, my dad told me to always use proper language with everyone, peers as well as older people. If my peers did not use the same proper language, I would set a good example for them. Dad's approach to good vocabulary was "use it or lose it", and he didn't want his kids to "dumb down" their language with peers in order to sound like everyone else.

    Let's hope this response doesn't join my earlier one in cyberspace!

  20. Rhys, I share your frustration with language in conversation.

    A friend has no patience with "you're" kind of language and I sympathize. It is easier for me to read "You are" instead of "You're".

    MY pet peeve is when people use abbreviations instead of the full title or name. Even more irksome if the abbreviation looks like another name. For example, I was asked for directions to "Lat mer" building and I thought they meant Latimer Hall on campus. Wrong! They were asking for directions to the Latin American studies building.

    I was reminded of a letter to Dear Abby from a writer who was puzzled by "no problem." I recall when I say "thank you", there are times when someone says "no problem" instead of "you are welcome."

    I am not sure if it is always a generation thing. I am in my 30s and I do not know anyone who said "whas'sup" except on TV.

    Now that I think about it, I have seen people on Reality TV, in my opinion, demean language as if whatever they say is not important. I think language can have effect on the listener. It is like trying to listen to someone mumbling.

    When you mention "whas'sup", do you mean to say these people are mumbling?
    Hank, thank you ~ I wondered what "sick" meant ~ lol.


  21. Mary Sutton,

    I was reminded of my great aunt who was an intellectual. She mentioned grammatical mistakes in the newspaper and she would write letters to the editor to point out the mistakes.


  22. While "my bad" is a weird saying, it's not really an apology, per se; it's more of a way of saying "oops". Which is equally weird, when you think about it, but has been in the mainstream of language so long that we no longer notice it.

    The "F" word has lost its power to shock, don't you think? It's just so ubiquitous these days. I'll never forget squirming in embarrassment in an Internet cafe in Florence, surrounded by American teens/college students dropping "F" bombs every third word. I was as embarrassed by their obvious lack of vocabulary as anything else.

    One of my biggest pet peeves: when, instead of expanding on a topic, the speaker simply reiterates the same point, just rearranged. No clarification, just more of the identical information, over and over again. It's like being nibbled to death by a duck.

  23. Still... I would rather hear people trying to express their emotions and concerns with any words rather than listen to those who speak so properly it hurts. I think the perfection that elevates us can become a dangerous division to play with however worthy the goal.

  24. Oh, I can't help it, I have to chime in. I really dislike, "just sayin'" or "I'm just sayin'", which people use as a way of distancing themselves from their opinion. Just own your opinion, I say!

  25. I have to start (or "I must begin") by assuring everyone that as a Texan, I never, never say, "Ya'll."

    Such an interesting topic, Rhys, and one I've been thinking about. Rick and I have been watching Ripper Street, the UK drama set in Whitechapel in 1889-1890. It is sometimes a bit realistically graphic, but wonderfully written and acted and historically absolutely fascinating, in no small part because of the use of language. Even people with little education in the East End spoke in complete sentences with an extensive vocabulary. And "props" to Matthew MacFayden, as the detective inspector, who manages to pull off sentences right out of Dickens without sounding awkward.

    Having finished Rhys's wonderful Queen of Hearts, I am a little sad to return to the 21st century...

  26. This deterioration is particularly noticeable among the African-American community. Look at documentaries of the old Negro League and those players and fans were highly articulate. Maja Angelou symbolized that generation with her wonderful and rich vocabulary.

    Now the young unfortunately emulate the lowest common denominator, as in rap talk, street talk, gang talk and think it is cool

  27. I will confess to having told a grocery checker or two "No problem does not mean 'you're welcome.'" But I'm sure they cursed me under their breath and did not reform, so I reformed instead.

    And in response to the comment that previous generations probably expressed the same laments as we are, there's a passage in the semi-autobiographical novel, set mainly in the 1930s, A Bird in the House (1970) by the Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence that always makes me smile. Young Vanessa refers to a friend's family as "broke." Her grandmother, who lives with Vanessa and her parents, chides her. "Vanessa, don't use slang. If you mean they're hard up, say they're hard up."

  28. Debs, I am so relieved that you "... never, never say, "Ya'll"which releases me from the burden of hoping you don't say "All Ya'll." Glory be.

  29. After rereading everything here today I realize I must rethink my opinion. This may take a little time to work through, but my mind is anticipating change. Exciting!

  30. OK. I have been known to be a stickler for correct grammar before, as in the case of a certain song popular when my kids were middle and high school. The lyrics echoed, "Don't hurt me. Don't hurt me no more." Much to the disgruntlement of my children, I would sing over the song with "Don't hurt me any more," each time pointing out to them why the song was using incorrect grammar.

    Having said that, I must defend the use of y'all or you all. Reine, you dear, wonderful lady, I'm not fussing at you, but I feel I must speak up for this life-long part of my Southern vernacular, especially as I had to listen to some relatives from the Northern hinterlands say "you guys." This phrase is not a misuse of language or a disregard for what is proper. It is not an indifferent slang term to throw about carelessly in the face of correct speech nor denote lack of education. It is a matter of dialect, and if you've grown up in certain areas of the country, it is a normal part of your heritage and culture. All regions have their peculiar or particular phrases of long standing, which are innocuous in form and intent.

    So, you all, y'all, and all y'all now know where I stand on that. Hehehe!

  31. Kathy, I could introduce you to some very interesting local vernacular in Pittsburgh. =)

  32. Hi, Kathy. I am restraining myself from saying, "no problem." :-) I will always talk Marblehead with Marbleheaders. If Sandy Barry says, "Down bucket" I will respond with "Up for air!" When I see another Header I will say, "Whip," because that's what we do. But that's different. No. I feel a change going on inside my wiggling brain. My opinion about language is shifting... later.

    Thank you, Rhys.

  33. My pet peeve is the word 'proactive' as the opposite of reactive. I am not sure why this galls me so.

  34. Mary, I bet you could. Hahaha! Reine, thank you for your restraint and for also reminding me that sometimes we do need to alter our speech in different circumstances. I love someone giving me more to think about. (yikes, preposition at end, abandon ship)

  35. Oh, all y'all should know by now that "wassup" is now "waddup"

    As for "no problem," my standard reply is to look really blank and say, "Why would there be a problem?"

  36. I detest "My Bad." Heck, I don't even know what it really means. I am bad? My bad ________? My head wants to explode.

    "At this point in time" bugs me. Why not just say "Now?"

    BTW, I'm loving QUEEN OF HEARTS.

  37. I'm in my sixties, and I must confess I've used "my bad" a time or two. I apologize. My current pet peeve is "I know, right?" What?? Do you need your knowledge confirmed? My husband can't stand "back in the day" because he wants to know WHAT day. Reading written English (or what passes for it) is my real bugaboo. It's OK to be ungrammatical or unclear sometimes in everyday conversation, but writing should be perfect. I'm always tempted to get out my red pencil, but what's the use?

  38. Though I've been closely following my dear Reds, it's been a great while since I've commented.. But this topic opened my mouth -- thank you, Rhys! One of my newspaper editors intelligent man, with a PhD, was a brilliant pianist, a professor. But his conversation could be filled with current-speak. (guessed to seem hip to his students.) Yet more annoying, his use of, "I and my friend" and other grammatical errors that made my teeth ache. And though he was my supervisor, I corrected him, if I was in earshot. He'd laugh. But one day he said, "There's nothing wrong with that. Our language is evolving, get over it!" But for me, it's revolving as in spiraling downward. When the Russians appeared to surpass the US in math and science, suddenly all efforts in education were sunk into those fields, to the detriment of everything else important to our culture. Until now colleges and universities are proposing to obliterate liberal arts from the curriculum!

  39. My pet language peeve is what I refer to as the Me ands. Me and X are going to the mall. Me and Y went to the movies. Me and Z like ice cream. Are pronouns and the proper usage of said parts of speech no longer taught in schools?

  40. I agree "no problem" is irritating. It makes me wonder how it got started. Of course the customer should not be a problem to the person giving the service. That is why the service person is working there and being paid for it. "My pleasure" is a correct reply because the person is saying he or she is happy to be at your service as the job requires. One of my pet peeves is hearing, "Where are you AT?" I'm always tempted to say, "I'm before the at." A simple "Where are you?" is all that is needed. Also, irritating are these: When telling someone some surprising news and the reply is "Shut up!" is cringe-worthy. Another grating saying used in the same context is, "Are you kidding me right now?" I want to say, "No, I was kidding you yesterday." I know that many of us love the English language as it should be spoken and written and just want everyone to enjoy it too. Thank you for doing your part, authors!