Words contain such wonderful potential as to alter a mood, evoke an atmosphere, and transport the imagination. But while words may not literally cause physical injury like sticks and stones, they certainly do have the power to annoy.
As language evolves and morphs, we rely on phrases to utter as placeholders while gathering our feelings and catching up to that train of thought careening off the tracks in our heads, or searching for better words to more effectively convey our point. Inevitably, during verbal discourse between imperfect humans, this use of the spoken crutch has come to be expected, if not accepted.
Some crutch phrases sound benign; for example, the second sound ever uttered by man must have been, “um.” On second thought, “um” is not really a word, but more like a sound. So maybe that was always in the caveman’s lexicon, mixed in with the other assorted grunts and gestures of the day. Surely we should give something so entrenched in our DNA a pass.
Other phrases, however, grate on the listener’s ears like denim dragging across a plush carpet. And when I say a listener’s ears, I mean my ears. And nothing annoys my ears more at the moment then the phrase, “sort of.”
Only two months have passed in 2014, but this phrase “sort of” has already sprinted to the front of the pack of annoying phrases. To be fair, it first wedged itself in my consciousness like a caraway seed stuck between my teeth in 2013 and continued to build momentum, thus it hit 2014 in full stride. How can such a phrase invoke so much displeasure? Consider these two examples.
1) A person recounts a wonderful meal they enjoyed by stating, “We went out to Boar’s Head Inn last night for dinner and had a great meal. They had a huge fire roaring in the fireplace, with candles and potpourri baskets scattered throughout the dining room. The room had a, sort of, romantic and rustic ambience.” Huh? Besides begging the ancillary question of how could one possibly eat with the stomach-churning mix of potpourri scents, burning wood and cooked food swirling in the air, the main question remains, was the ambience “romantic and rustic,” or was it not?
2) A radio commentator states, “The President has toned down his rhetoric in recent days. He appears to be backing away from his position and, sort of, executing an exit strategy. Huh? Is he executing an exit strategy, or not? And if he’s not executing an exit strategy, what exactly is he doing?
Out here on the Perch, I stand confused as to why a speaker would inject such doubts into a listener’s mind. What are people thinking when they use this phrase, are they trying to sound high-minded? Commentators on TV and radio use this phrase incessantly, apparently in the hopes that it would layer a sheen of intellectual gravitas to their presence. However, they just come across as sounding phony and pretentious. And, they have also managed to weaken whatever point they were attempting to make, thus running headlong into an immutable law of the universe, the Law of Unintended Consequences.
The Law of Unintended Consequences has proven its omnipotence since the dawn of time. When the caveman first discovered fire, he must have slapped his chest a couple of times in celebration of such a species-altering revelation. Little did he know that soon the cavewoman would force him to sit next to her around a roaring fire, hold her hand, and grunt about how his day went hunting the mighty woolly mammoth while managing not to get eaten by that relentless saber toothed tiger.
Given the lack of outrage in the general population over the incessant use of the phrase, “sort of,” perhaps I am overreacting out here on the Perch. When the word “like” burst forth from the San Fernando Valley in Southern California into the nation’s consciousness, commentators railed against our instant affinity for it and declared the occasion as the beginning of the end of civilization as we knew it. I sense none of that angst with “sort of.”
Perhaps because “sort of” sounds so similar to other benign and accepted crutch phrases such as “you know,” “I think,” “kind of.” In fact, “sort of” sounds like an extension and close relative of “kind of.” Perhaps that’s why the phrase does not even register on people’s radar screens. But that defines the slippery slope threatening the semantic topography of our conversations.
Where do we draw the line on this crutch phrase creep? Soon we will just talk to each other in words and phrases that do not define our firm convictions. Does this illustrate the regrettable reality that when we talk with each other we are not really listening to what the other person is saying, that we would rather stay lost in thought formulating our next point? Or it represents just another manifestation of the short attention span of our digital existence today. Focusing on many tasks means focusing on none. Watching TV or listening to streaming audio on the laptop while simultaneously surfing the web causes a phrase such as “sort of” to magically blend into the background noise.
And maybe none of this truly matters, because the notion of carrying on a face-to-face conversation with another person seems so quaint today. When you are texting or tweeting or sending an email, there is no room for crutch phrases. They represent an indefensible waste of 140 characters and take too much effort to tap out on a touch screen. In a communications paradigm where “ur” means both “your” and “you’re,” a silly phrase such as “sort of” finds no safe harbor.
Because of the actual, unintended effect of this insidious phrase, speakers who wish to not annoy should just discard it like a humpback whale ignores its vestigial leg bones. And with that I will try to let it go. With three hundred sixty degree views of a pastoral tapestry and sunsets over rolling hills, the Perch is not the place to come to feel upset. It is a place where one can, sort of, relax and unwind. Like, you know, chill.