Correcting Your Behavior Since 2017

Say What You Will

Those who know of the Curmudgeon’s love of rules (and my tendency to act as hall monitor for good English) may be inclined to assume that I’d find slang, regionalisms, and jargon objectionable. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have an immense fondness for the phrasing quirks and “insider” terms of various subcultures. They often use language creatively and wittily in ways that really perk things up.

The quaint localisms and expressions one finds in different parts of the country, for example, are often quite charming. New York has the wonderfully convoluted phrase “not for nothin’” which (double negative notwithstanding) is understood perfectly by the natives. In Boston, “So don’t I!” means “Boy, do I!” In central Pennsylvania, a local may tell you that his car “needs washed.” Minnesotans say “borrow me” instead of “lend me” and “spendy” instead of “expensive.” These aren’t grammatically correct. But no one is claiming they are.

And then there are the scores of whimsical slang terms unique to certain groups. Stage actors have “park and bark” (to stand center stage and perform a solo), “chewing the scenery” (shamelessly overacting), and “blue hair matinee” (a daytime performance attended by mostly elderly patrons and a reference to the the once-popular trend among older women of tinting their hair with a pale blue rinse). Some of the many colorful expressions from the world of drag have made their way into this generation’s slang vernacular, such as “spill the tea” (give up the gossip, tell the truth), “shade” (artful, well-aimed insult), and “come for” which means to engage in an adversarial manner (as in “Don’t come for me.”). Musicians call headphones “cans,” musical ability “chops,” and a wrong note a “clam,” while an “idiot check” is the act of returning to a performance venue just after load-out to make sure nothing was forgotten. And some of the best slang terms come from the jazz musician lingo of the 1930s jive era. (You'll want to click that link.)

Now here’s why all this works. First, this kind of language is fun in that it knowingly departs from proper English. The reworking is deliberate and conscious, and I’m all for it. Mind you, when dirty descriptivists try to squeeze these delightful-yet-incorrect words into the mainstream by adding them to their evil, polluted descriptivist dictionaries (case in point: Webster's recent "we-missed-the-joke" addition of "truthiness," a deliberately illegitimate word coined by Stephen Colbert's alter-ego on the former "Colbert Report"), well, that’s where we have a problem. But as long as slang stays on its side of the fence, we get along fine. The other thing about these group-specific glossaries is that they’re often quite clever. When those 1930s jazz musicians called a stand-up bass fiddle a “doghouse,” only a fool could object, because when a bassist uses a bow, it really does sound like there are several curs mixing it up inside of that thing.

But when phrases and expressions develop mindlessly, with neither cleverness, creativity, nor wit and fail to even make sense . . . well . . . it just causes me to want to harm someone. Thus we arrive—albeit somewhat late on the page—at the subject of this week’s gripe:

“Say, Prudence. Remind me again. When did we attend that reading of pre-nineteenth-century

Lithuanian poetry?”

“Let me think . . . I want to say it was last spring.”

“Do you? Do you want to say that? Well, if you have such a desire, I support you in pursuing it.”

For heaven’s sake . . . look, I well understand what the phrase “I want to say” wants to say. It wants to say “as I recall,” “if memory serves,” “to the best of my recollection,” “I think,” “I believe”—the point is, there are many perfectly lovely, well-established methods by which to convey this idea without resorting to nonsense.

What if the cashier at the grocery store announced, “I want to say that I’m ready for the next customer.”? What if the TV host looked into the camera and said, “I want to say that we’ll be back after these messages.”? Silly, wouldn’t you want to say? That would be a waste of perfectly good verbal real estate, occupied by words that add nothing and only confuse the listener.

Perhaps “I want to say” is a mere peccadillo . . . to some people. As for me, I'm sorely tempted to buy an unusually loud airhorn and keep it handy for use at every utterance of this stupid three-word road bump. I never again need to hear anyone preface a statement with a statement of their desire to make that statement. And so, I hereby issue blanket permission to anyone reading these words: Please . . . be my guests . . . just say it.

And that’s what I wanted to say.