Sunday, November 7, 2010

LANGUAGE QUIRKS – When a Few Words Are a Scream

For one who appreciates nuance, language is a storehouse of little quirks and wonders unto itself. Here are just a few that, since I first noticed them, have continued to fascinate—and occasionally irk—me.

Sometime in the last couple of decades—I'm not sure exactly when, but it seemed to have happened in a matter of just a year or two—the customary greeting one received from a counter person (at a bank or a fast food restaurant, for example) morphed from "Hi, may/can I help you?" or the somewhat more curt "Who's next?" to a lazy hybrid of the two: "Can I help who's next?"

It's not so much that the expression changed that fascinates me, but how it changed. Now I'm no etymologist, but I'm guessing it went viral within a few days of its use by a character on a sitcom. It caught on, and its curious appeal has continued to spread—even to people who should know better.

Here's another quirk that, once you first notice it, you'll seldom make it through a day without hearing. I suspect this one owes its existence to more than just the rapid spread of popular culture; it's just too subtle. It must be something about how our minds work. Consider these two sentences:

       "The problem is that she never got the information in the first place."

       "The problem is is that she never got the information in the first place."

What's the difference? You will almost never hear the first sentence. For some odd reason most people—and I mean almost everyone—will say "is" twice in any sentence of that construction. See if you can train your ear to catch it.

     "Everyone was grabbing for the 
       best deals. It was a real land mine!"

Then there are those hilarious, unintended manglings of common expressions. For years I've been fascinated with malapropisms, the inadvertent, usually humorous, substitution of words which sound like other words—like "He loves to dance the flamingo." (for flamenco).  I've taken a slightly different tack, fixating on how often speakers manage to blend two or more common descriptive phrases. I call them Mixed Monikers. Here are just a few of the many I've heard and jotted down over the years:

In trying to describe how little he trusted something one of his co-workers had said, I think this guy came up with an effective marriage of "flew in the face of reality" and "face the facts":

      "When I heard that, it just flew in the facts of what everyone else knows."

A radio talk show caller, trying to express the urgency of the need to pass a piece of legislation, unwittingly combined "like nobody's business" with "like there's no tomorrow" to produce:

      "They ought to be working like nobody's tomorrow!"

Supermodel and Bravo's Project Runway host, Heidi Klum, describing an occasion in which she was at a frantic loss for words, may have unwittingly merged "gasping for air" with "grasping at straws" when she said:

      "...I was gasping for the right word."

NPR reporter Jack Speer, in describing an especially critical ruling of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court (in the Delphi case), entertained me with this spontaneous intersection between "landmark" and "watershed":

      "It was a watermark decision."

And finally, one of my very favorites:

My mother-in-law, excited to tell us about the deals she'd found at one of those bargain basement sales in which shoppers push and shove their way to bins of discounted items, apparently grafted "Land Rush" to "Gold Mine":

      "Everyone was grabbing for the best deals. It was a real land mine!"


Post a Comment

Thanks for visiting One Man's Wonder! I'd love to hear your comments on this post or my site in general.
And please stay in touch by clicking on "Subscribe" below.