Yesterday I received a broadcasted email from a cherished friend in Washington, DC. He writes for a generally distinguished audience. In his most recent “blog” he raised the matter of an annoying subject which for years has troubled me as well.
No doubt you’re familiar with the lyrics and music of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe made famous in the movie and Broadway production “My Fair Lady”. In the opening scene as Professor Henry Higgins first comes upon the Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, he cries out:
Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter,
Condemned by every syllable she utters.
By rights she should be taken out and hung
For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue!
The upshot of course was that it was Ms. Doolittle’s sloppy language which kept her in her place “not her wretched clothes and dirty face”.
Equally crashing to one’s ears is the more popular and sadly ubiquitous use of “guys” to describe anyone at all, man, woman, boy or girl. This poisonous word has so successfully wormed its way into the vernacular of the masses that it is nothing to hear it uttered by almost anyone on any occasion. It would be tolerable at least to imagine it being confined to casual or seedy environments, but the truth is that its utterance knows practically no bounds. For example it is now nothing to hear seasoned journalists on national television and radio using the term to refer to whomever they are addressing, whether female hockey athletes or members of Parliament. Equally common – though perhaps excusable - is the well-meaning but utterly offensive colloquial of restaurant servers who insist upon punctuating every inquiry with something approaching “you guys”. Thankfully many of the more upmarket restaurants employ personnel who know better than to refer to everyone at table as “you guys”, but the deprivation is not even then guaranteed.
It is tempting to incriminate the entire modern educational system for what appears to be little more than lackadaisical instruction. I think, however, that the real source of the victory is not mere carelessness but rather fashion. As far as I can tell everyone who persists in using this now meaningless noun of address sees it as an in-road or key to being laid back, with it or chummy, none of which frankly makes it for me. While I don’t mean to construct boundaries between people, I would favour more creativity when it comes to generic description (say something like, “everyone”).
Another everyday idiom is the term “viral” which because of its pathological overtone of disease nicely captures what is in fact spontaneous unsolicited email circulated throughout the internet from one person to another. I consider Facebook, Twitter and all the other so-called “social media” for the most part essentially mundane, tedious and ineffective, though clearly they are hugely successful in disseminating and cultivating bad language habits. The fact that the internet has permitted people to paint the entire world with the same brush – at least on these excessively popular though boring sites – means that the slapdash approach to literature has no enemy, much less guidance.
Quite apart from the inherent value of broadening one’s vocabulary, the more compelling feature of this coarse language is that it, like Eliza Doolittle’s “aw and g’on”, is certain to shackle the exponent. In addition it is a recipe for lowering the tone of conversation instantly, suggesting something more akin to a grunt than dialogue. It both offends and disappoints me that so many people seemingly place so little value upon the texture and depth of their language. It is like cooking without spices. Why so bland? Why so uninteresting?
Speaking of food, I have heard it said that there are two categories of people who don’t like new food: children and the uneducated. The same applies to language. While children can be forgiven for not having learned, few people today can hide behind the cloak of illiteracy and lack of education generally. There is no excuse for shoddy language. I am willing to bet that people appreciate good language as much as they appreciate good food. This annoying noun of address is nothing more than a slipshod twitch, very unbecoming indeed.