Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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No way! Way! Nonsense comments serve a purpose



Language is full of catch phrases and people who tire of hearing seemingly useless remarks such as “Off the top of my head,” and “I know, right?” might consider the comments as lazy talk.

But according to a Hofstra University linguist, it’s difficult to be too critical of catch phrases.

“The utility of such phrases is very predictable,” said Robert Leonard, linguistics professor. “Dialogue is highly orchestrated. We think we open our mouths and words come out, but linguists have been studying conversation for 40 or 50 years, and for conversation to even be recognizable, it has to be orchestrated,” he said.

People take turns talking during conversation, Mr. Leonard added. While one takes the floor, others show proof that they are listening. So consider this from Mr. Leonard the next time you report an event to somebody and they ask: “Are you serious?”

“When people say ‘Are you serious?,’ then they acknowledge that they have done their conversational job well,” he said. “[It] shows the person that what they have just said is of great interest.”

Mr. Leonard, who maintains a Web site on the subject called, is a vocalist and founding member of Sha Na Na a nostalgic ’50s rock band that performed at Woodstock. He was named one of the smartest rock stars in history, according to a September, 2012 issue of Time magazine.

He said that some of the seemingly more mundane comments such as “Get outta here!,” “You’re kidding!,” “Shut up!,” and “No way!” in response to a story someone is being told reveal whether a person is really listening.

“We have a lot of conversational devices that make sure the person knows they are with you,” he said. “This is how we scientists study conversation and narration, and we use it for court cases as well.”

“Up talk” is another conversational tool, meaning up-speak or rising inflection. That’s when the last syllable or statement rises, as in “You know what I mean?” And when the listener says or shows that he or she understands, “then you drop the up talk,” Mr. Leonard said.

Sometimes catch phrases are the result of television commercials that become a part of language. Among the more recent ones: “Can you hear me now?” and “That’s so 20 seconds ago.”

So is it fair to consider these and similar comments as lazy talk?

“Typically people are accused of language laziness when they are not speaking formal English, but it’s not lazy at all,” Mr. Leonard said.

“Slang can be very, very precise. There are many words in slang that on purpose are the reverse of their normal meaning,” he said.

For instance, “He’s so bad,” in slang can mean he’s really good. Mr. Leonard said it’s common for teenagers today to describe something as “sick” when they mean something is good.

“I ask you, is it more work or less work? It’s much more work! So how could they be lazy?” he asked.

Though hard-core language professionals may not realize it, Mr. Leonard said, slang has several important functions, and one of them is that it is a secret code that identifies members of groups to each other.

“So if you say, ‘What do you mean, sick? I thought it was good,’ then you have just shown that you are not a member of that group,” he added. “If you want to be in with the cool guys they change the word of the day because they don’t want people to be insiders without their permission.”

Really? Awesome.

Contact Rose Russell at: or 419-724-6178.

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