Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Pop Language

With the average American home watching more than eight hours of television a day, it's no wonder how we talk has become eerily similar to how they talk on the tube. Duh! Author Leslie Savan has studied the way popular idioms have crept into our language and -- long story short -- wrote an entertaining and enlightening book on the subject called Slam Dunks and No-Brainers. Just released in paperback, it was recently selected as a "Book for the Teen Age," by the New York Public Library and has been required reading at several universities. In her book, Leslie explains the phenomenon of what she calls "pop language." We phoned Leslie and said, Bring it on!

VT: How do you define pop language?

Leslie: We're talking more and more like the commercial media in our lives. Actually, we're talking like the commercials themselves. Pop language is the language of selling in a particularly snappy and entertaining way. Whether you're selling cars or wars, phrases like "no-brainer" or "It's a slam-dunk case!" (George Tenet's infamous assessment about finding WMD in Iraq) can practically close the deal for you. Pop language sets up the power structure of the moment and, when pronounced correctly, draws consensus its way.

VT: How did you get interested in the subject?

Leslie: For thirteen years at the Village Voice [the alternative newspaper in New York], I wrote a column about advertising, which by extension was about pop culture as well as politics. I started to notice that certain words and phrases were used in ads again and again. Maybe the best example is "stuff," which in the late 90's was used in dozens of commercials for completely different brands. A lot of "stuff" has remained to this day in ads and company slogans, like Snapple's "the best stuff on earth." I became intrigued and wanted to deconstruct just what made "stuff" and some other phrases so persuasive, what made a catchphrase catchy. So instead of focusing on the language in advertising, I decided to write about the advertising in language.

VT: How do phrases become pop language?

Leslie: Most pop language begins life as something that "real people" are saying, whether it's slang on "the street" or business jargon in the executive suite. Eventually copywriters, scriptwriters, and other media people pick up on the talk and, consciously or not, play it prominently in ads, corporate websites, sitcoms, and movies -- often as the punchline or as supposedly clever repartee. When a phrase goes through the media mill, it comes out shinier, newly glamorous and powerful -- it has more of a pop! The words dazzle us a bit -- much like bumping into a famous person does. They become celebrity words, the stars of our sentences. When you say "I don't THINK so" or "Think outside the box," you emit some of that media glamour, too. To different extents, we all use pop language, because it has clout.

VT: Does pop language have staying power?

Leslie: As opposed to slang or something so trendy it's bound to fizzle (like "fo'shizzle"), pop language, by my definition, has great staying power. It becomes part of our thinking process, it becomes part of that box outside of which we usually can't think.

VT: Can slang words become pop language?

Leslie: Slang is usually defined as nonstandard English, like "bling bling" or "glitterati." But you also have perfectly ordinary words--"don't go there" or "bring it"--that, when spoken with attitude, can turn into top pop. Even PC expressions, like "give back to the community" or "community" itself, can go pop. "Community" is such a big media player, it's become indispensable in everyday conversation, not to mention in political shouting matches. When you dub a group of any kind a "community," you've subtly ennobled it--even if you're talking about "the lobbyist community."

I like to think of pop words as contestants on American Idol. They go in as unknowns, but if they last long enough to win still more media exposure, they'll walk out as pop celebrities. And you know that a singer or a word has really made it when you see them in TV spots selling products.

(photo credit: Jerry Bauer)

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