As people's concern with making sense when they speak continues to decline, we've seen a number of stupid linguistic habits creep into our language, take root and become the norm, all because the cool kids didn't care that they were spouting nonsense.
This is how the perfectly logical phrase, "I couldn't care less" deteriorated into "I could care less," which communicates the literal opposite of its intended meaning. It's also how "literally" came to mean its opposite, leading to such insane statements as "I literally dropped dead." But, this being the age of "whatever," asking people to think about the words they are using amounts to an insult.
In the past few years, The Curmudgeon has detected a new bit of gobbledygook cropping up throughout New York City (and God knows where else). It snuck in like a ninja and spread like a rash. Counter staff at drugstores, take-out joints, coffee places, and the like have abandoned nice, time-honored, logical methods for summoning the next customer in line. Back in the old days when folks were polite and spoke English, it was "May I help the next customer?" or "Next customer, please." Lovely phrases, clear as fresh water from a flowing stream. These evolved into the brashly efficient but still perfectly sensible "Next?"
But now, those of us on line (or in line, depending on where you live) have begun to hear the inexplicably strange call, "Can I help the following customer?"
. . . Who? I'm still waiting for the name!
In real English, "the following" is a phrase that's meant to be followed with specific information. It refers to the thing or things that is/are about to follow the words currently being spoken. Here's how it works: "Would the following passengers please return to the boarding area?: Mary Smith, John Jefferson, and Roger White." "I have to decline, for the following reason: I'm sick." See? Oh, it's so beautifully sensible when you just think a bit.
But alas, "Can I help the following customer?," it turns out, is intended to mean "May I help the next customer?" Let's pause a moment for our brains to regain equilibrium . . .
. . . and now let's ponder. Why did this happen? How did it start? How is it perpetuated? Was it a simple error made by a non-native speaker that somehow got repeated until it was mistaken for an actual thing people could say? Did someone think it sounded fancy and professional? Was someone trying to be creative? And then did these people share their new invention with coworkers, who agreed and took it up?
It couldn't have been introduced as a time saver. The aberration has ten syllables. The version that's in English has eight. And it couldn't have been intended to improve clarity. What about "May I help the next customer?" (or even "Next?") was unclear in any way? The newly coined wording, on the other hand, is as clear as mud.
But it gets worse. This "Can I help the following customer?" nonsense has now evolved, and not for the better. Recently, we've begun to hear a truncated version:
That's right. Just "following." That's the entirety of the message from the person charged with interacting with customers.
It's what I heard on a recent visit to a local establishment that sells frozen yogurt, right after the person in front of me left the register. "Following?" I just stood there, not at all sure what was going on. I listened carefully for further information or instructions. Nothing. Finally, the young woman behind the counter glared at me in annoyance and repeated loudly, "FOLLOWING?" Well, I wanted the yogurt, so I played along. (I'm now an enabler.) In a fog of linguistic confusion, I stepped up to the counter, and sure enough, it turned out it was my turn to pay. And so I did.
I was tempted to inquire about the origin of the mysterious one-word secret code. I wanted to know who'd taught her to summon customers in this near-grunt, and where I might locate that person in order to smack him with a dictionary. But there was a line, and my own sense of etiquette won out as I chose not to keep others waiting..
And as I stepped away I heard, once again, like some sort of strange, other-worldly incantation, the following word . . .