The Way We Talk Now: Commentaries on Language and Culture

The Way We Talk Now: Commentaries on Language and Culture

by Geoffrey Nunberg


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This engaging collection of National Public Radio broadcasts and magazine pieces by one of America’s best-known linguists covers the waterfront of contemporary culture by taking stock of its words and phrases. From our metaphors for the Internet (“Virtual Rialto”) to the perils of electronic grammar checkers (“The Software We Deserve”), from traditional grammatical bugaboos (“Sex and the Singular Verb”) to the ways we talk about illicit love (“Affairs of State”), Geoffrey Nunberg shows just how much the language we use from day to day reveals about who we are and who we want to be.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618116034
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 01/26/2012
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 652,957
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.64(d)

About the Author

Geoffrey Nunberg is a principal scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and a consulting professor in the Department of Linguistics at Stanford University. He is also chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. He has published many articles in the scholarly and popular press and made numerous radio broadcasts on language and linguistics, the cultural implications of digital technologies, and language policy issues. For this work, he was given the 2001 Language, Linguistics, and the Public Interest Award by the Linguistic Society of America.

Read an Excerpt

As a Cigarette Should {1997}

The year was 1954. The top-rated TV show was I Love Lucy, sponsored by Philip Morris, and close behind was Your Hit Parade, sponsored by Lucky Strikes, whose ''Be Happy, Go Lucky'' jingle had won TV Guide's award for commercial of the year. And Otto Pritchard, a Pittsburgh carpenter with lung cancer, filed the first liability suit against a tobacco company.

In that year R. J. Reynolds introduced the new brand Winston, which unlike other filter cigarettes stressed taste rather than health. Reynolds ran a singing commercial with the tagline ''Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.'' Like instead of as-as grammatical sins go it was pretty venial, but the purists went to the mattresses over it. One critic called it ''belligerent illiteracy''; another suggested that the writer who came up with the ad should be jailed. The Winston people were delighted with all the free publicity. They capitalized on the controversy in a new campaign that featured the slogan ''What do you want, good grammar or good taste?'' Soon after that Tareyton got in on the act with a campaign headed ''Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch,'' and the whole dance went round again over pronouns.

It was a curious episode. It certainly wasn't the first time advertisers had stooped to using popular usage to make a point. Fifty years earlier, the sides of barns all over the country were plastered with endorsements for Red Man chewing tobacco by the great Philadelphia second baseman Nap Lajoie: ''Lajoie chews Red Man, ask him if he don't.'' But no critic ever deigned to notice this sort of thing until the 50s, that golden age of American paranoia, when Madison Avenue vied with Moscow as the insidious corruptor of American mores. That was when he martini-sipping ad man in the gray flannel suit became the new archetype of the American smoothie -the character played by Tony Randall in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and by Gig Young in just about everything else.

Maybe that's why the grammarians' criticisms of the advertisements echoed with charges of class treason, the sense that the Winston copywriters were probably Yalies who knew perfectly well when to use as and when to use like. As Jacques Barzun put it, ''The language has less to fear from the crude vulgarism of the untaught than the blithe irresponsibility of the taught.''

In retrospect, it's all pretty ironic. Those cigarette ads do indeed sound a little sinister to us now, and of course they came back to haunt the companies that produced them. But the worst thing critics could find to say about them at the time was not that they were selling cigarettes, but only that they were doing it ungrammatically.

The advertisers are still playing fast and loose with the language, but it's unlikely that the Winston episode will ever repeat itself. In recent months, for example, the Toyota people have been running a campaign that stresses how well their products fit in with consumers' day-to-day needs. '' Toyota, everyday'' is the slogan. You'd think that by spelling everyday like that they'd worry about suggesting that their products are banal and ordinary. But the ad agency thought the one-word version looked zippier, and when they talked to consumer focus groups, it turned out that no one was particularly troubled by the misspelling: people said they were used to seeing mistakes in advertising, and besides, it made the company seem folksier.

Indeed, folksy is all you see in advertising nowadays. You think of those in-flight infomercials where guys in jeans and Doc Martens are touting the latest cool stuff from Hewlett-Packard and Motorola. Not long ago, in fact, Microsoft went to the ad agency that had done all those Gen-X ads for Nike and asked for an ad series that would make them sound cool. It bothered some people, like the Los Angeles Times columnist Gary Chapman; he took to task all these multinationals who appropriate a style and language that originates with inner-city kids who will wind up being the losers in the information age. It was a perfect reversal of the attacks that critics leveled at the Winston people back in the 50s. The advertisers are still taxed for their linguistic condescension, but now their crime is the betrayal not of their own class but of the people whose language they're ripping off. Well, of course. Advertisers are no less shameless now than they were back in the days of the singing commercial. What's surprising is only that people can still get indignant about it. Shocked, shocked! to find that there is advertising going on.

Table of Contents


vii Preface

The Passing Scene

3 The Choice of Sophie {1989} 6 Vietnamese for Travelers {1989} 8 You Know {1992} 11 Yesss, Indeed! {1995} 13 Look-See {1994} 16 The N-Word {1995} 18 Some Pig! {1995} 20 A Few of My Favorite Words {1995} 23 Rex Ipse {1995} 26 An Interjection for the Age {1997} 29 The Last Post {1997} 32 As a Cigarette Should {1997} 35 Go Figure {1998} 38 The Past Is Another Country {1998} 41 Yadda Yadda Doo {1998} 44 Gen Z and Counting {1999} 47 Wordplay in the Country {1999} 50 Turn-of-the-Century {2000}

Word Histories

55 Hoosiers {1989} 58 Easy on the Zeal {1992} 61 The Decline of Slang {1992} 64 The Last Galoot {1992} 66 Über and Out {1993} 69 The Burbs {1995} 73 Rebirth of the Cool {1996} 76 Remembering Ned Ludd {1996} 79 Paparazzo and Friends {1997} 82 The Cult Quotient {1997} 85 Portmanteau Words {1999} 88 Ten Suffixes That Changed the World {1999} 91 The Edge {2000} 94 No Picnic {2000} 97 Community Sting {2000}

Politics of the English Language

103 Force and Violence {1990} 106 Eastern Questions {1991} 109 A Suffix in the Sand {1991} 112 PC {1991} 115 Party Down {1996} 118 Standard Issue {1997} 122 Group Grope {1998} 125 The Jewish Question {2000} 128 Only Contract {2000} 131 Chad Row {2000}

The Two R'S

137 I Put a Spell on You {1990} 140 Naming of Parts {1994} 143 Reading for the Plot {1994} 146 Split Decision {1995} 149 Sex and the Singular Verb {1996} 151 Verbed Off {1997} 154 Hell in a Handcar {1999} 157 Distinctions {2000} 160 Points in Your Favor {2000} 163 Shall Game {2001} 166 Literacy Literacy {2001}

Technical Terms

173 The Dactyls of October {1995} 176 Virtual Rialto {1995} 178 The Talking Gambit {1997} 181 Lost in Space {1997} 184 A Wink is As Good As a Nod {1997} 187 How the Web Was Won {1998} 190 The Software We Deserve {1998} 193 Have It My Way {1998} 195 The Writing on the Walls {1999} 198 Its Own Reward {2000} 201 Hackers {2000}

Business Talk

207 You're Out of Here {1996} 210 Whaddya Know? {1998} 213 Slides Rule {1999} 216 Come Together, Right Now {1999} 220 It's the Thought That Matters {2000} 223 A Name Too Far {2000} 226 Having Issues {2000}


231 Pack It In! {1999}

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