You have to hand it to today’s English teachers, especially those in America’s high schools. A thousand years ago, I will quickly admit, we made a mess of the language, but today’s Future of the Nation have taken slang and colloquialisms beyond the pale. It’s as though everyone between the ages of 10 and 16 has been afflicted with chronic stuttering and a complete lack of the ability to fashion a coherent sentence.
You get the impression that America’s kids are trying to communicate with a lexicon of barely a hundred words. Given that most people of adequate education can operate with 15,000 to 20,000 words, such limitations can be nearly profound. The youthful alternative is a series of inflection-heavy monosyllabic grunts, shrugs and waving of arms, concluding with “you know what I mean?” or the decidedly ethnic-based, “you know what I’m saying?” Trapped in a situation of that sort I typically respond with a curt “No. Try harder.”
Essentially, the style — that’s only word that fits, if you choose to be kind — entails cluttering of the language. It is the polar opposite of succinctness. Listen to a sample where the speaker relates and comments on an evening at a rock concert: “I was, like, with, you know, with Jenny, at, you know, uh, Staples Center, on, uh, Saturday night, and we were, like, watching Taylor Swift, you know. She was, like, so cool, you know what I’m saying?” This, as opposed to simply saying, “Jenny and I saw Taylor Swift at Staples Center Saturday night. Great show.”
Now you would think — or certainly hope — that this mode of speaking is one of the trappings of age: this is how you can recognize me as a kid. In my own youth, there were words that functioned as a sort of code; our parents wouldn’t (this word is pronounced thusly, WOULD-NT, not “wood-dent,” contrary to popular and juvenile usage) know what we were talking about. Unhappily, the practice has already traveled with young people into business quarters. Truly, you hear it in the corridors of giant corporations far and wide.
What to do? Well, you can publically wince in the presence of such anarchy. I always do. You can upbraid the users of DID-DENT, COU-DENT and WOOD-DENT in front of their peers (not that it will do any good). You can politely ask the users to curtail all of the “likes” and “you know what I means,” but that, too, is only likely to net you a derisive smirk. Or, you can earnestly hope that the trend will die a swift and well-deserved death. In my own time the enthusiastic employ of calling everyone “man,” declaring “cool” as the preferred adjective, and, God help us, urging our colleagues to “do their own thing” have all passed into history. We are all richer for that.