How to Speak Good/Cool/Nonstop

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How to Speak Good

I would seriously like to utilize this space in order to assist you, the reader, to grow your communication skills and essentialize your ability to formulate effective interpersonalized data-sharing capabilities. The ultimate upside of this system is guaranteed to positively impact your life, and at absolutely no cost to you.

In order to effectualize this proposed program with the utmost proactivity, last week I initialized a telephone uplink with Mr. Ken Smith. Mr. Smith has generated a plethora of crucial publications. These would include not only but also his co-authorated Roadside America; Ken's Guide to the Bible, a broad overview of all the "sex," "violence" and "outright lies" bracketed within that document; Raw Deal, a unique compendium of hard luck stories; and Mental Hygiene, an holistic approach to analyzing the gestalt of those "old-school" classroom films.

In order to most effectively prioritize my and Mr. Smith's time-value, I offered him the freedom to "talk his face off," within the broad parameters of what I hoped and intended to be a major free-floating exchange of ideas. I have often found this to be a critical methodology.

In regards the case of Mr. Smith, however, I swiftly discovered that I didn't know what the fuck either of us was talking about. And nor did he either.

Welcome to the world of Junk English, a slim but quality new tome currently in the process of publicationization by my friends at Blast Books (144 pages, $12.95). Consider Smith, if you will, a new Strunk and White for these overload-of-jargon times. He spent a year immersing himself in bad speech and worse writing, from sources incorporating everything from junk mail to advertising to bureaucratic speech to The New York Times. The ultimate result is a handy guide to bloated phrasing, useless adjectives and generally crapulous word usage, organized alphabetically.

Smith begins with "abstract adjectives" (like major, positive, quality, serious) and ends with the hideous euphemisms of "warfare English" ("soft ordnance" for napalm being my favorite example). Along the way he chides us with baleful humor for the way we try to sound smarter by misusing words like utilize, factor, aspect and community; how we try to be more impactful (okay, sorry) by replacing a perfectly good word like "big" with the more ostentatious "enormous," or going for "crucial" when all we really mean is "important"; inappropriate business, government and military terms that have seeped into common language; advertising's insidious and manipulative use of words to con and confuse (as in the way "free" and "hassle-free" in ads always mean the opposite of what they seem to); and common dumbass mistakes, like using "quotation marks" for emphasis or saying "cynical" when you mean skeptical or wary (one of my pet peeves). He also coins some useful terms like "jargon gridlock," in which communication is blocked when people in a specialized field?computer geeks, let's say?forget that no one else knows what the hell they're talking about.

Not a lot of Smith's examples will be new to anyone who cares about language, but Junk English is written in such a humorous, nonthreatening way that it might actually be of some use to the rest of us who don't speak or write too good. I won't go so far as to say it's English Grammar for Dummies, but it's in that direction.

[Laughs] I'm not an expert. I'm just as ignorant as everyone else. Which is kinda one of the reasons I wrote the book.

What was the impetus for the book?

Oh, I was mad. The usual thing that makes me write books. I guess I thought it was necessary. There're a lot of books about grammar and usage?it's not like it's a new idea. But it struck me that most of these books are written for people who already know a lot about the English language, preaching to the choir. And most people, frankly, most Americans don't read Harper's or Atlantic Monthly or The New Yorker. Their exposure to the English language is through people who don't know any more than they do, or it's through politicians or commercials or p.r. spokespeople. So we have several generations of people who want to sound intelligent, who want to write well and speak well, but the role models are either uninformed or manipulative. I thought that what was needed was a little book that would call attention to the most common examples of English abuse and misuse. Very simple, easy to understand, fun?you know, write it for the ordinary speaker and writer of the language, which I consider myself to be. I am not a linguist, I'm not a grammarian. I'm just somebody who's used the English language for a lot of years. I thought that was a book that was needed.

You're telling people, "Please hone it down to what it is you're trying to say, instead of ballooning your language."

I mean, why do we speak? Why do we write? We do it to communicate to other people. And anything that gets in the way of other people is bad.

Yet some of your sources are trying to do the opposite. Advertising copy is trying to manipulate you. Politicians balloon their speech because they're trying to take up air time. I think you've identified a really interesting problem, which is that the rest of us have adopted language that really is meant to obfuscate and manipulate, to the point where we can't say what it is we really want to say anymore.

Because we don't know! We've never been taught that there is a simple way to say things. Or that what we're saying is in fact not what we mean. We're all talking to each other like idiots now, but we're such idiots we don't even recognize that we're talking like idiots.

I see a series here?More Junk English, Still More Junk English...

Oh, I don't know. This book was pretty painful to do.

I'll bet. You read a lot of junk.

I sure did. And once you start, you become aware of it everywhere. It becomes that much more horrible. It's in The New York Times. My examples are pulled from everywhere. They're pulled from the finest journalism we have.

Well, that's not saying much. What if someone says to you, "What difference does any of this make? The language is always changing. You're just being an old purist fuddy-duddy about this. We all know what we mean, so what the hell."

A living language is always being changed by the people who use it, creating new words and assigning new definitions to those that already exist. Much of the change typical of junk English, however, is born of expediency, not creativity or accuracy. We write "positive" or "impact" not because it best expresses what we mean but because it's the first word that pops into our heads, and it does so because we hear and read it used, over and over, by those who know no differently. Change is not synonymous with "improve"?it can sometimes be for the worse. When we stop speaking and writing junk English, that will be a change for the better.

How to Speak Cool

Hepcat lexicographer Max Decharne gave himself what sounds like a much more fun assignment when he decided to do the research for Straight from the Fridge, Dad: A Dictionary of Hipster Slang (Broadway Books, 193 pages, $12.95). It reads like the annotations to a Mezz Mezzrow or Mickey Spillane book, or maybe a Cab Calloway anthology. Everything's here, from the origins of common slang like "cool" and "hip" and "jive" to noir, beatnik and jazzbo exotica like bread pan (vagina), holding down a package (drunk), Abyssinia (I'll be seein' ya), hop in my kemp (get in my car), push-note (dollar bill), cake cutter (swindler), Tucson blanket (a hobo's newspaper bedding), elevated (drunk) and call some hogs (snore).

In his introduction, Decharne notes that the great preponderance of 20th-century coolspeak began among jazz musicians and gangsters, and it's only relatively recently that it became respectable and, yes, cool with the general populace. "The overall tone of hipster slang is a kind of deadpan cynicism?not entirely unexpected from a section of society that often spent much of its time trying to avoid the law and scrape the rent money together," he writes.

Descharne will read from and sign Straight from the Fridge on Friday, Nov. 9, 6 p.m., at See Hear, 59 E. 7th St. (betw. 1st & 2nd Aves.), 505-9781.

How to Talk Nonstop

Granary Books has published a new, larger edition of our friend Kenneth Goldsmith's Soliloquy (489 pages, $17.95), which originally appeared in an extremely limited edition in 1997. Soliloquy is every single word Goldsmith spoke during a week in April 1996. Before publishing it as a book, he plastered the text over every surface of a Soho gallery in '97, to what he concedes was a "lukewarm reception."

It's not a book I'd read cover to cover, but I love to dip into it a page or two at a time. Like all of Kenny's projects (e.g., Fidget, which recorded every move his body made in a day), it comes off as either massively narcissistic or just a bad case of OCD, and its endearingly feckless babble reads somewhere between Andy Warhol's A and one of Beckett's endless solipsisms. At times Soliloquy reminds you of the unconscious poetry of everyday speech?and often its banality and disjointedness. Here's an excerpt I hit at random:

"...Where's my animal. OK, I gotta run upstairs. Bets. What is she? Alright, I'll pick her up when I come get my computer. C'mon, pal. Let's go. I'll see you guys I'll see you guys in just a little bit. C'mon, Bet. C'mon, baby. Oh boy. Bets come. Good girl. Yes. Are you getting food? Uh, you are. Bets. Come Bets. Bets come. Oh boy oh boy. What a day. Hey. How you doing? Good to see you. Where's do you mind the dog do you want me to? Yes, it's Babette. Yeah, she's 7. How you doin'? Good. Where's Daniel? Brian. I kept thinking Daniel. I don't know why I just put my shoes on it's so nice out. Maybe we'll sit outside and get a coffee? Yeah. Where is he from? I see. Huh. That's good. Uh huh. I don't know her, no. Let's let's go outside I've got about a half hour and then I've got my my, uh, I've got all these. I just had lunch with my mother. Yeah, she's just in seeing Cheryl's show. What? Sure, I'm from Long Island. My whole 35 years, I guess 31 of them have been spent within 20 minutes of where we're standing right now. Yeah. Yeah, sure, we'll all get a fresh, a little fresh air. It's beautiful is it still warm out? Great. Great. Yeah. Anything to get out. Alright g'wan go ahead, g'wan. Go on, Bets. Babette go on. What are you waiting for? You waiting for your leash, OK. Here it is. Same old dog..."

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