Sunday, July 10, 2005

Bogus Linguistics in the NY Times

William Safire's "On Language" column, as Steven Pinker has argued, may not be sophisticated about linguistics, but at least it's generally inoffensive and, at its best, fun. If only the same could be said of Leslie Savan's effort on "popspeak," substituting for Safire today. She defines popspeak as words and phrases, borrowed from mass media "that pop out of their surround, that have built in applause signs and that, if inflected properly, step into the spotlight as verbal celebrities." Her examples include:
  • I don't think so
  • step up to the plate
  • think outside the box
  • give back to the community
  • you da man!
  • don't even think about it
  • slam dunk (as in it's a slam dunk case)
  • it's show time.

These catch phrases, Savan asserts, give us "a certian fuzzy freedom to barge through any second thoughts" and have an extraordinary, nefarious power. Believe it or not, she argues that such phrases were instrumental in leading to the invasion of Iraq. She gives two examples, taken from Plan of Attack, by Bob Woodward. First, when Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador, wasn't convinced that the United States would follow through after invading Iraq and go all the way to Baghdad to depose Sadaam Hussein, Dick Cheney managed to persuade him by saying that "once we start [the war], Sadaam is toast." Second, when President Bush was concerned that the public would not be persuaded by pre-war evidence that Sadaam Hussein was actively seeking weaspons of mass destruction, CIA director George Tenet asserted that the administration had a "slam dunk case." As the result of his use of this phrase "the mood in the White House shifted from doubt to confidence."

I would argue that this is lousy history, particularly the notion that Tenet used a special vodoo to turn the President's brain and make him act against his better judgement. But more to the point, it's lousy linguistics. What reason is there to believe that such phrases have special power to "barge through any second thoughts?" If Cheney had said, "Mr. Ambassador, we are absolutely committed to following through and ensuring that Sadaam regime is destroyed," would Bandar have remained unconvinced? After all, on this particular point Cheney was telling the truth, so it's hard to see why Bandar should have remained unconvinced. If Tenet had said, "Mr. President, it's absolutely certain that Sadaam is pursing WMD, and we will have no trouble persuading the public when we marshall all of the facts," would the outcome have been any different?

But Savan seems to believe that these phrases turn somehow banish thought in both the user and the listener. In fact, using one of these phrases is "in more ways than one, a no-brainer" and (humorously) "you don't have to be a rocket scientist to realize that too much pop talk could prevent you from becoming a brain surgeon" or from thinking outside the box.

So using "popspeak" is a great way to persuade people against their better judgement, and also a way to become stupid yourself. People whose speech is influenced by popular culture are idiots, but idiots with awesome persuasive power. Does anyone really believe this elitist nonsense? Why would the New York Times print it?

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