I am fascinated by (obsessed with?) slang, colloquialisms, jargon, argot, and of course language use and misuse in general. Perhaps most entertaining are slang and colloquialisms that pop up and become widespread in the space of a few years.
“Honestly…,” “Let’s unpack this,” and a few notable others have become more frequent (at least from my point of view) and I wanted to dissect them a bit and think about what could be behind them.
New terms or ways of communicating can be hard to see “appear” sometimes, since they enter everyday language incrementally, and the best part is that some of them may not be new at all, “new” defined here as “having popped up in the last 10 years”, but they may be new to me as they become common or even pervasive in the conversations I have and the information landscape that I inhabit.
There’s more than pure nerdish entertainment to this. For one thing, it can be used as a lens through which to look at society and culture, but more specifically at organizations and what makes them tick. Religions, in particular are an interesting subtype of organization since some of them maintain their high-level structures for hundreds or thousands of years. For example, Scientology’s obsession with redefining language is notable in that they are at the extreme end of the spectrum combining both jargon and and repurposing of common language, which naturally affects how you communicate and therefore relate to, and to some degree how we perceive, reality.
Startups go through a similar (even if simultaneously more overt and less structured) process in this regard. Most of us have seen how companies have their own terminology for everything. In engineering, in particular, you could literally sit through an entire conversation about infrastructure between two engineers from the same company and never know what they’re talking about, while in marketing or sales they don’t so much invent terminology as repurpose it freely, leading to a overloading of commonly used terms that can some times create confusion (e.g. “Active users” or even “pageviews”).
I’m not saying that startups, tech companies, or even non-tech companies are cults (Apple’s perception as such notwithstanding..), but there’s some similarities that I think speak to a need of a group, no matter of what kind, to define itself as separate from everyone else and, of the mechanisms necessary for that to happen, language is one of the easier starting points.
But back to what are more widely shared colloquialisms and/or slang, here’s a few personal favorites that I’ve observed have become more common in recent years, and some of my own musings on what’s behind them.
Some of these trigger “old man yells at cloud” syndrome in me, since (apparently) I have a hard time handling the cognitive dissonance, sheer nonsense, or just plain lack of meaning involved.
“Like, you know…” and the invisible question mark that follows
This one is fairly established, dating I think back to the mid-90s. And it hasn’t just endured, it has become so widespread and entrenched that it’s definitely worth mentioning.
It’s one of the most fascinating colloquialisms in my opinion. It’s a simile in which the structure that follows “like” is not explicit, but rather vaguely points to some idea that perhaps, maybe, hopefully, the other person shares in some indeterminate way in the statement we’re about to make, while expressing that we really don’t care too much one way or the other.
It is maddening to me to be in a conversation in which the other person constantly trails off, attaching “like, you know”s and question marks at the end of sentences. We are, apparently, not supposed to have conviction anymore, and language tinted with this construct communicates that clearly. It says: I have nothing invested in this statement.
All too often, in fact, “Like, you know…?” has no follow up at all and it just trails off, the question mark implicit in the inflection of our voice, the interrogative tone, the you know parenthetical. It’s filler, pretending that you’re saying something when you really aren’t, a statement without content, a commitment to nothing in particular that nevertheless creates the impression that we’re communicating. Whatever is said gets turned into a question, something to be challenged on the receiving end. But when the receiver also answers with similar lack of definition, then it’s just a bunch of words strung together, isn’t it? A charade: because, actually, we don’t want to have a real conversation.
Declarative language, straight up statement of beliefs, of facts, of what we know to be true even if it is subjective, has been appropriated by the extremes, the Glenn Becks of the world. The alternative, nuance and complexity of thought, are in everyone else often replaced by a quivering indecision.
The flip side of this indecision is how we pretend to counteract it with an earnest declaration: “Honestly…”
This type of preface or clarification instantly triggers, at least for me, the thought that the rest of what the other person’s been saying has not been “honest.” Not “dishonest” necessarily, but the addition raises the level of whatever comes after over what came before. And, when it’s used constantly it just makes me question everything.
Aside from combining it with “like, you know…”, to give the appearance of weight while simultaneously reducing the importance of what we’re saying, “honestly” is also used in many other cases. Why are we suddenly using this modifier so frequently? Is it that in a world when The Onion‘s headlines can appear as serious as those in The New York Times we have suddenly decided that, by default, everything is suspect? Or is it perhaps that PR, marketing and advertising are so pervasive that we look at everything with skepticism and some degree of mistrust, requiring the additional emphasis of “honestly” to separate what we say from what we’re supposed to say? Maybe a bit of both. Ironically, advertising continues to be pretty effective. Instead of applying these filters to ads, we look at everything with suspicion.
“Let’s unpack this”
This one seems to have become more common in the last couple of years. I don’t know if it’s been traced back to its origins, but it seems to me that it’s a byproduct of technology –both explicitly and implicitly, partially around lack of trust, but also increased (real and perceived) complexity.
Explicitly: software, first, where so many things are “packaged” and have to be “unpacked” to look at them. More importantly, thanks to e-commerce, followed by a relatively new phenomenon of boxes everywhere. We all get packages at home or the office that have to be unpacked. Think back, pre-e-commerce, how common was it to get a package? For most people, not very. Now, unpacking is a frequent action in our daily lives, a common occurrence.
Implicitly: everything around us now has layers within layers, a Matryoshka doll of seemingly neverending complexity. The phrase “let’s take a look under the hood” used to be applicable beyond cars — the world generally had one level. You’d open the hood and there was the engine. Done. Now, “under the hood” is just the first of many layers, even in cars (batteries, microprocessors, software…). A phone is no longer just a phone, and you can even have a phone built into your car, nevermind connected to it. A car contains maps. The maps contain reviews. The reviews link to social media. And on and on it goes. The ongoing merging of cyberspace and meatspace often leads us down rabbit holes in everything we touch.
Which also relates to “Honestly” since “Unpacking” is often used for discussing statements by public officials, and even facts. The only way you would need to “unpack” a statement is if its true meaning, or different interpretations, were “packed” under the “wrapping” of its surface. Orwell’s doublespeak (or maybe n-speak?) ingrained to the degree that the default assumption becomes that there’s hidden meaning, or inherent obfuscation. Hence, “Honestly” may be functioning as a vaccine for “Unpacking” — something that communicates “Unpacking not required.”
Once more, I chalk this one up as trying to counteract the lack of trust we have come to assume in what’s communicated. It is more commonly used by marketing types, but recently I’ve heard with alarming frequency in other contexts.
Something is either unique, or it isn’t. It can’t be “very unique,” or “incredibly unique.” Period. But I suppose that when words like “unique” have become overused, we start to add adjectives in the hopes of making it clear that, yes, this is unique, as opposed to all those other things that we say are unique even if they’re not.
This is the most egregious misuse of an adjective, but there are others. I typically use words like “beautiful,” “love,” “hate,” and others sparsely, because their weight is diminished by attaching them to everything. I like rain, in itself but also because I appreciate sunny days more when they’re juxtaposed with the alternative, and viceversa.
If everything is beautiful, if beautiful is the norm, then how do we talk about something that is special, that touches us beyond that? We start adding superlatives: “incredibly beautiful,” “profoundly beautiful” and so forth (“profound” is another overused term these days, now that I think about it). Until that becomes the way we refer to even the menu transition of an iPhone app, or some icon, or the color of a couch, at which point we are left with a situation in which our depiction of it leaves us little room to enjoy the occasional good thing, because we have done away with contrasts by turning everything into positive happy feelings.
Most of the time, nothing remarkable happens, our lives are routine, and that should be just fine. Also, a lot of things just suck. And that’s a good thing, because if they didn’t we wouldn’t be able to tell when they don’t.