Going Through a Phrase – Just Say It!

By Mordechai Schiller

Our daughter-in-law, aka the novelist Ariella Schiller, is blessedly creative. And, mazel tov, we were recently blessed with a new granddaughter, baruch Hashem — Rachel Chaya Schiller. (Thank you, all the best to you!)A few people called and said, “I wanted to say mazel tov.”
I told them, “If you want to, go right ahead and say it.”

I don’t run with the Nike crowd. But sometimes you have to just do it. (I saw a kid in shul wearing blue suede Nikes. I half expected his T-shirt to say not to step on his shoes. But it said, “Now is the time to just put it off until tomorrow.”)Why do people say, “I want to thank you”? If they really want to, they should just say thank you. And why do people say, “I just called to say hello”? So, say hello. Who’s stopping you?
Out with it. Any shrink will tell you it’s not healthy to repress your feelings. Speak right up. Say it loud; say it proud: Mazel tov! Hello! Thank you! Writers have a name for rambling introductions: “throat-clearing” (hot tea won’t help, but it couldn’t hurt). Of course, not every long introduction is superfluous. When my son Meir was 14, he wasn’t prepared to deal with 19th- century literature. After wading through 100 pages about water and whales, Meir came to me holding Melville’s Moby Dick and asked, “Where does this book start?” But the rest of us are not Melville. I mean, like, you know, we all (yup, sorry pal, that means you and I) fill our conversation and writing with verbal padding that doesn’t say anything. As Ralph Keyes wrote in The American Scholar (“Pause Fillers — Um, Like, Y’know, Sort of, If You Catch My Drift”): “These are the verbal equivalent of a facial tic. We all use them. I once listened to a recording of a radio interview I’d done and was appalled by how often I had repeated ‘you know.’ And it’s not just me.” William Safire quoted the pioneer linguist Leonard Bloomfield, who named these utterances “‘hesitation forms’ — the sounds of stammering (uh), stuttering (um, um), throat-clearing (ahem!), stalling (well, um, that is), interjected when the speaker is groping for words or at a loss for the next thought.”

Saying “y’know,” isn’t asking if the listener knows or understands what you’re saying. It’s a pause with sound effects, a vocal ellipsis. To switch (not, Heaven forbid, mix) metaphors, it’s verbally treading water while gasping for breath. And it can give listeners or readers a sinking feeling. Former Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the longest-serving U.S. senator, gave a history lesson to his colleagues about the master Greek orator Alcibiades, who would sometimes stop in the middle of a speech and wait, as if struggling to find the right word. The silence kept audiences transfixed. Byrd asked, “Why don’t we do that anymore? I think there can be an art in the use of a pause. And I find nothing wrong with a pause. It does not have to be filled in with ‘you know.’” Then he added that “the phrase [you know] betrays a mind whose thoughts are often so disorganized as to be unutterable — a mind in neutral gear coupled to a tongue stuck in overdrive.” When politicians get their tongues stuck in overdrive, they often produce gaffes — embarrassing slips of the tongue. We demand our leaders be sapient, or at least show signs of brain waves. And we mercilessly heap disdain on people we were stupid enough to vote for. Armchair gaffe-ologists — pundits and amateur psychologists — have been having a field day with President Joe Biden, a self-proclaimed “gaffe machine.”

Just to keep the bashing bipartisan, Biden’s predecessor fared worse. Mr. Trump has supplanted Mr. Richard Nixon as the man everybody loves to hate. But as Trump put it, “I know words; I have the best words.” And in this corner, the professorial Mr. Obama was often accused of elitist arrogance. He had a habit of starting sentences with a condescending “Look …” But he is not immune to plebeian gaffes. Speaking in Scotland, Obama said, “Since we’re in the Emerald Isles here, let me quote the Bard, William Shakespeare.” It was a double slip: The Emerald Isle is a nickname for Ireland. And Shakespeare was the bard of England, not Scotland. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Mr. George W. Bush earned a new word in recognition of his goofy gaffes: Bushisms. But, in his own words, “They misunderestimated me.”
In the immortal words of another former President — John F. Kennedy — “Let me say this about that”: The eloquent JFK, as Ralph Keyes wrote, “loved to pepper his speeches and public statements with quotations. This not only perked up his prose, but improved his press by giving him an air of erudition. Kennedy was also, however, a misquoter of eloquence, who showed how creative and unreliable memory can be when using comments others have uttered.” Mark Liberman wrote on Language Log, “You can make any public figure sound like a boob, if you record everything he says and set hundreds of hostile observers to combing the transcripts for disfluencies, malapropisms, word formation errors and examples of non-standard pronunciation or usage.”

But, as Mr. Nixon used to say, “Let me make one thing perfectly clear”: Unlike Dr. Seuss’ Horton the Elephant, politicians rarely say what they mean and mean what they say. Nor are they faithful one hundred per cent.“ The secret to success is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
Nobody knows who coined that motto; it’s been credited to every working wit. But politicians live by it. And when they seem to stammer in simulated sincerity, it should give us pause.

Please send smiles, sticks and stones to language@hamodia.com.

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