(This entry contains several instances of the F-word.)
I don’t remember the last time I heard the word people. I grew up thinking of folks as a low class word for family—something Jed Clampett would have used. After 9/11, I was shocked to hear George Bush refer to al-Qaeda as “folks,” but I remembered that George Bush was the very person who had caused me to lose all respect for a Harvard education. Next, I noticed that black people on a NPR program aimed at a black audience only used the word folks to refer to two or more people. I was disappointed, but observed that it was, after all, not a program that targeted the educated. Now, everyone on NPR—interviewers and interviewees alike—uses the word folks exclusively. Nobel Laureates are folks. Neo-Nazis are folks. The Founding Fathers are folks. Polygamists, entomologists, and Arctic explorers are folks.
It is both a blessing and a curse of aging to realize that things are not as they used to be, and to further realize that people who don’t remember how they used to be are probably unaware of the changes (an observation that keeps me from taking historians too seriously). Yesterday, a store clerk told me, “Have a fabulous day.” She flashed a toothy smile, which caused me to wonder how many times a shift she was able to carry off the performance. I speculated that she must be, like, so totally bored with “Have a nice day” that she was simply trying to come up with an alternative. As I turned to leave, I said, “Thank you,” “No problem,” she answered. “At least there’s that,” I muttered as I wondered when “you’re welcome” became passé.
I first heard “Have a nice day” in 1974. The teacher in the classroom next to mine said it to each of the thirty students in each of her five classes as they walked out the door. She never personalized it with a name; never said “Study hard,” “See you tomorrow,” “Don’t forget to bring the homework that you claim to have forgotten,” or even “Later Gator.” “Have a nice day” it was, 150 times a day, 750 times a week. Her students behaved exactly as they would had she said nothing, had she not even been there.
Editorialists opposed the nice day mantra on grounds of inanity, and because it was worded as an imperative. I waited in vain for the fad to pass. Thirty years later, I’m still waiting. I never observe language moving uphill. New words are added at an astonishing rate, but the overall effect is to express the same sentiments with ever more of the same imprecise words, which means that a great deal of what is said is meaningless.
“Me and him, like, you know, like, fucking think that not being able to smoke in a fucking bar is, like, totally fucked—you know.” When I eavesdrop on conversations among the young (to whom one my age is invisible), this is often the level of discourse that I hear. “We despise the new law against smoking in bars” would do, so why the excess? I would have supposed that the ever-increasing volume of words that comes at us everyday would have inspired us to speak more succinctly, but I’ve concluded that it is this very volume that causes individuals to hold the floor as long as possible. So, what do you do when you want to keep talking, but you have nothing more to say? Of course! You, like, uh, you know, like, fucking drag it out.
We are also under-educated. A Russian penpal wrote that she learned to speak English better in a few years than most Americans do in a lifetime. She had met a great many of us, and concluded that we are fat, boorish, spoiled, ignorant, and would have already gone down the toilet were it not for our inherited wealth. I wanted to defend us, but I had no defense. All I could think to do was to ask her why, if America is so bad, thousands of Russians are trying to move here whereas no one from here is trying to move there, but such a talk-radio tactic would have been an evasion rather than an answer.