The Nation's Pulse

Debasement Is Not Just a Damp Room Under Your House

Just how debased can the English language become and still be called English?

By 9.21.10

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When I opened my Sunday New York Times to a story on Derek Jeter this week I was stumped from the first word. I had to ask my daughter to define OMG. "I use it all the time," she said. "Where have you been?"

"Oh my God," I reminded her. "In France."

Visitors, foreign and American-born, are finding communication increasingly difficult as catchwords proliferate. Often they seem to come from the schoolyard.

Just how debased can the English language become and still be called English? I pondered this question as I attempted to function in the U.S. after living an extended period in Europe.

The day before my OMG experience, an angry motorist in Boston wanted to share his opinion of my driving skills. He held up his right hand to his forehead and formed an "L" with his thumb and index finger extended. "Loser," my 12-year-old grandson translated. As I grumbled unintelligibly, my grandson held up three fingers and rotated his hand to the left. The "W" became an "E", shorthand for "whatever."

I assume American adults will be doing the "whatever" sign to each other eventually, just as they picked up the l-word. ("Whatever" as a spoken word regrettably seems here to stay.)

Kids used to borrow language from adults. Now the opposite is happening. Is this country regressing?

The last time I paid attention to the American vernacular, "awesome" (from "awe": reverential fear or wonder) was a rather cute grownup word tossed around on the playground to describe fast rope-skipping and such. Now I see it is common currency among real estate agents, the military, doctors, NASCAR commentators, and even the ethereal voices of NPR. I heard one smug woman the other day interviewing a minor author. "You new novel is awesome," she purred. He purred back. I thought, "Whatever."

"Awesome" has the British laughing at us again. One Londoner wrote on the web recently that it is "a word Americans use to describe everything." What we have here is a trend I'll call double reverse migration, or the snatching of a children's word by adults after it had first been snatched by the kids.

Some adults are still stymied by these two syllables, though. A junior executive friend of mine recently received a herogram from her boss -- a woman comfortably salaried in the middle six figures -- that consisted of one word: "AWSUM!"

Part of American lingo creep is normal in a healthy language, and some of it can be fun. I won't deal here with Sarah Palin's formulations, the Twitter or texting crowd, fashion patios, tech talk or satellite radio. Eventually someone will do the book.

The list of neologisms and vulgarisms will be long. What is a visitor to make of words like "diss" meaning to trash, "sick" meaning excellent, "rad" meaning even better and "wicked" (at least in New England) meaning best? They don't teach this stuff in ESL classes.

People who work with words are alarmed by slippage into vocabulary that was once over the line in mixed company. Try late-night television, where boundaries of propriety are steadily moving outward. Those of us who can remember Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" are appalled at Jay Leno's monotonous sexual innuendo and the sprinkling in the monologue of "hells" and "damns" and worse. The FCC used to police abuse of the public airwaves, threatening license problems for those who overstepped. Come back Newton Minnow.

And what are we to make of a publishing industry that brings out family-oriented titles such as 'The Big-Ass Book of Crafts" and "The Big-Ass Book of Home Decor"?

Okay, I'm confused. I admit it. Isn't "Kick-Ass," a major movie, a vulgar title? And how to explain that the very preppy population of Wellesley, near once-uptight Boston, seemed unperturbed when Kickass Cupcakes ("Think about cupcakes in a new way") moved into their tranquil town of McMansions and rolling lawns? Or the randy boys at Boston University who enjoy autumn girl-watching on Massachusetts Avenue, known as Mass Ave, or more familiarly as "Ass Ave."

Some proper households are on edge. My daughter gasped when her 12-year-old interjected a "WTF?" into dinnertable conversation. "Chill, mom," he said. "It means 'Why the face?'"

Whatever.

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.