The Soft Power of Like

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your slate plus membership. The following podcast contains explicit language.

S2: From New York City, this is Lexicon Valley. I’m John McWhorter. And you know what we’re going to start with today. Let’s listen to an exchange between Nathaniel and Heather on the late, great, crazy ex-girlfriend. This is from the final season, magnificently peculiar, as always. And here is Nathaniel having a problem asking for something. Listen here.

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S3: What happened? I forgot to charge my car and now I’m out of juice. I’ve been trying to get an Uber, but these idiot drivers to canceling on me. Hi. You must have a bad rating. The ratings go both ways. Socialists. OK, good catching up tonight. No, wait, wait, wait. I do that. All right. Sorry, can I have a ride, please, and thank you.

S4: So you start with the default. Can I have a ride? And then his idea is that to make it better, to be more polite, he should have said, can I have a ride, please? But then notice that to say, can I have a ride, please? Almost is worse. It sounds hostile. And not only because of the Nathaniel character. Can I have a ride? Can I have a ride? Please, please? To our modern ear almost is too formal, and yet we’re taught formally that to add please is a form of politeness if you think about it. That’s a little uncomplicated in terms of how we actually use the English language today. The problem of Faneuil’s having is one with softness and I mean in terms of language, he is having a problem with making what he’s saying, not come off as a kind of assault or is just a little bit metallic.

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S2: He doesn’t know how to do soft. And that is an awful lot of how one effectively gets around in English these days. And the question is why one could just comment on it and leave it there and possibly with, you know, some facile notion of how we’ve all gone soft or something like that. But we’re not we’re not Margaret Thatcher. We’re trying to make sense of things. What is all of this softness or what is a better excuse than this to play this song from my childhood, not the Lauryn Hill version.

S5: We’re gonna do Roberta Flack. Here we go with this.

S6: Saying in my life is.

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S7: Killing, we saw this.

S8: With this down now, with his words, killing me softly.

S9: With this.

S10: Had to have little. But there is an awful lot of softening that’s necessary to speak this language these days, not in terms of a textbook, not in terms of what we consciously think of.

S11: But if one doesn’t use softeners of a certain kind these days, you are red at best as someone with a rather professorial manner. I wonder from speaking about anybody I know to an extent or at worst, it’s kind of kind of cold. And I don’t just mean I’ve mentioned on the show saying thingy instead of thing or something like dealio. There’s a lot more than that. And one of the first things many of you will think of and you’re quite correct and I didn’t interview show about this with ALEXANDRA Darcy, the professor who’s known sometimes as the like lady. But, you know, that was in 1969. And many of you probably haven’t heard that episode. And so it’s about like. And the way it’s used these days. Now, any of you who are listening to the show will expect that the way I feel about how often people under a certain age and that certain age is becoming 50 but under a certain age are using like these days, is that well, the language has ever been thus that we think of it as new when really it goes way back.

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S2: And I love showing you how things go way back that we think of as new. But the truth is like in the way that we use it. One, it does not go that far back. It’s something that explodes in the 1970s, just as most of us would think. And what’s more, there was no earlier equivalent to like it’s not as if there was some other word or expression that people used in the same way that fell out. And then we replaced it with like.

S11: And it’s a funny thing because linguists have no real standard explanation for why that is that like just took off and not only in the United States, but in Canada and Australia and England like just jumped starting in the 1970s. And a lot of the way like is used is as what you would call a softener you’re trying not to speak to aggressively. It doesn’t mean that you have some problem with your ego. But these days, if you don’t use like in certain contexts, you almost seem like you’re pushing the point. I’m going to give an example with this American life. And because there are certain feelings about the use of like amongst young people, I’m going to go far enough back that I don’t feel like I’m hanging any person out to dry, because even if that person hears this, they are now, you know, generation plus from nineteen ninety seven. But in this episode, listen to the way this person uses like in what was certainly I remember in 1997 was already a very ordinary way of using it where this is a clear direct speaker and yet you have these likes that really serve to keep the person from sounding like they’re pushing in your face too hard and plently different.

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S12: And so they just like this excitement. They’re like really bubbly and bright kind. Make a bargain, a pink balloons just, you know, of course, because they’re the convention with their peers. So they have to impress each other. It’s not like, oh, yeah, right. It’s not like they’re undercover, like being at a convention that we’re making. I mean, they weren’t made up to. Right. I mean, it was crazy. So I’m just looking at them in line like I’ve never seen my makeup in my entire house. But they were just covered just and just the most awkward. I mean, everything looked like it was a mistake.

S11: Just the most. Then notice how sort of is used to where technically if you’re just thinking about strictly what the meaning is, is not sort of anything. The person could say the same thing without using sort of. But they use sort of for a reason. And it’s to feel friendly. It is to not sound too didactic. Listen to this.

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S13: I hadn’t I hadn’t thought about that until that exact moment. I was going that was it’s a sort of song to you. I’m here to watch TV. I’m here to watch TV. And I’m here to talk to people about watching TV. Then listen to this sort of. And I was thinking, well, I’m sort of a crackpot, too. And here she was. It was sort of like the alcoholic getting up at the alcoholic convention saying, I’m an alcoholic. And then listen to this one.

S10: But, John, I mean. But you sort of saw her as being nuts. Right. But you thought she was speaking for you. And she said that I felt that empathy with her. Very typical. This is the way like in sort of are used these days. And the thing is, this really is new. For example, I remember talk about 1997. I remember in 1996, I happened to end up talking at a party to a man who really was close to 100 years old, all his marbles. Sharp as a tack and. Well, but still, while you talk about to anybody. And what do you talk about to him? Well, I figured him being a century old was worth a conversation. And since he was a linguist, I just asked him, you know what? Given that you would have had an ear for this kind of thing and you vividly.

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S2: Remember the 1920s when all those flappers were running around getting drunk and the guys were banging around doing the Charleston and dying of diseases and things like that?

S10: What actually did people say that annoyed people as much as like does now? How did those people sound at those parties? People certainly weren’t saying like because we know that was new. But was there some other hej that people use so much that it got on people’s nerves? And he thought for a long time, remember, he’s a linguist and so his ears would have always been opened to this sort of thing. And he said some people complained about sort of because people used sort of. But he said people didn’t use sort of nearly as much as they used like now. And he was the kind of person where you could be pretty sure that he knew of what he spoke. And there is no evidence. And even the slang he is depictions of how actual people spoke in, say, 1925 of anything like the way life is used or any word used in that way. There’s something about speaking modern English that encourages us to not be too didactic and to indicate it with this rich and in its way very complex use of like. So ALEXANDRA Dossey, the like lady has written a whole dissertation and book about like. And there are other people who’ve worked on it. It is complicated and subtle. Lord forbid you are a non-native learner of English and you want to learn a truly idiomatic way of using this word like that. So many seem to consider such drash. I mean, this is this is subtle stuff. Nevertheless, it is new in a way you could almost say. Why is it that we’re so polite these days? That’s a hint of where we’re going to go in this. But for now, let’s take a quick little musical break. This is Irving Berlin. This is 1932. This is the musical Face the Music. This is a song called Soft Lights and Sweet Music, which is written about more than it’s actually heard. This is a contemporary as in contemporary to the time arrangement of the song. Listen to the harmonically slightly odd soft lights and sweet.

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S2: We’re talking about these softeners. And it’s not just like than Sawada. And it’s not just thinking. And dealio. They’re all sorts of things that we don’t think of as a thing that are very important to not coming off as a jerk in modern American English. And so, for example, if you are about to leave a party, you would never say, I am going to leave. You almost have to use the word head out these days. You don’t think about it. It’s not going to be in a language arts textbook. But if you’re going to leave some gathering, you’re going to head out. You’re certainly not going to depart, nor would it make any sense, except in a very computer way to say I am now going to leave. The way you do it is you say, well, I’m going to head out. And that’s the way you do it in a way that doesn’t seem abrupt and suggests that you enjoyed it, despite the fact that you are heading your way out of it. You do not socialize. That’s something from a language arts textbook. You can spend time with people, but it sounds a little deliberate. What you do is you hang out, you hang out with people. Now, did people say hang out in 1925? That particular expression? I doubt it. But we certainly use it a lot now. I was hanging out with friends and it sounds very informal. It softens it. So not I was imposing myself upon friends, not by friends. And I made a plan to spend some time together looking at one another and eating asparagus or something like that. No, you hang out with your friends. That’s the way that you put it these days. Go to Target if you must. And you look at those long fucking lines. And one way you can get beyond that if you don’t have anything too complicated is you go to the self-serve. So the self-serve, of course, has to talk to you in this kind of chipper voice. And the self-serve machine tells you to grab your receipt. Grab it when you mean grab it. I’m going to pick up the receipt. I’m going to get it. I mean, that’s the vanilla way of putting it. But no, it tells you to grab your receipt. That’s very informal. The self-serve line is trying to sound approachable, as if that’s going to make you more likely to go to Target. I guess it is, because it makes you feel like you might want to hang out with the woman in the whoknows. But it says grab. That is not what that thing would have said. Even as recently as 25 years ago, there’s something very modern about that. All sorts of things that you have to say. For example, in an interview setting or something similar, you do not say, well, we’re finished. He’d say we have come to an end. You say that you’re going to wrap it up. Wrap it up. That’s very informal. And yet now you hear it in nominally formal circumstances, you more almost have to say you’re going to wrap up. We’re going to conclude no. Well, that’s ridiculously formal, but. Well, we’re about finished. No, that sounds like something’s wrong. OK, we’re gonna finish still. No, no. You wouldn’t want to hang out with that person. You have to wrap up these days. Another example that is I’m going to let you go. And you didn’t ask to be let go. Like, remember how painful it was if you had a crush on somebody and then they send and let you go and you think. But I didn’t want to go. But really, if you are trying to end the conversation these days, you have to say, I’m going to let you go. Not I’m going to conclude not I’m going to hang up now. Well, I’m going to let you go. You learn that as part of speaking English as a person. I imagine children of a certain age, you know, probably around nine or 10, beginning to pick those sorts of things up subconsciously, because if you don’t pick them up, then you would have a very hard time getting around in society. We all know dozens of examples of this sort of thing where there’s English as you see it in a textbook English that you would impart consciously to someone else than English as you actually speak it, where especially in our modern rendition, an awful lot of it is cushioning the blow, even if it’s not something you would think of as a blow with these particular words and expressions that make you sound like a person to the point that Target ends up putting words and expressions like that into the programmed voice of the self-serve counter to be approachable. You have to use lots of these softeners. And so the question becomes, why is it that we’re softer now?

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S14: Obviously, that doesn’t make any sense at all. And yet it definitely seems to be the case that if you don’t use these softeners these days, you’re a little bit out of step with what it is to be the proper person in a way that you wouldn’t have been in 1925 or.

S11: In 1955, even 1975. Something has happened more recently than that.

S2: And what it’s about is politeness. Ultimately, it’s about politeness. Politeness is something that some linguists study and some of you may be salivating at the idea of studying politeness. Others of you I know are thinking how interesting could that possibly be? That’s not linguistics. And the answer is that it is linguistics. But it doesn’t seem like it because we’re taught that language is something much narrower than we often know. So what do I mean by it? Politeness. Well, all of this softening is a kind of politeness which is replacing older ways of being polite in the language. And they’re the ones that we often are still formerly taught. So, for example, it used to be that the way you were polite, the way you cushion the blow, so to speak, the way you did not be too much in people’s faces was that you said please. You said, thank you. We still teach children that. And so may I have a pacifier? Nobody. At that age they wouldn’t ask. But may I have that book, please? Thank you for giving me that umbrella. Those things are what we think of as politeness. One, a one. And there they are. And notice their little juice and cookies. Hundred years ago, maybe somebody would have said that, but not as much as we would say. Now you do have to use. Please, and thank you. Although with thank you, we often prefer. Thanks. And there’s a reason for that. We’ll get to it. But there are a little little, you know, kind of kitty birthday party, a little little unapproachable, if it’s always please. And thank you. If that’s not somebody that you can imagine really settling down with. But that’s politeness. One, a one. Any language has ways of being polite. It differs from language to language, culture to culture, time to time. Our politeness used to fundamentally be that kind of elaboration. So if you please. Well, I thank you for doing that. Their language is where those particular kinds of words are, not the ones that you use for politeness.

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S10: But we’re very used to it in English or another way of being polite in earlier usages of the language which we now use. But we’ve been doing it for so long that the effectiveness is worn off. Is hypothetic carletti. And what I mean by that is could you close the door now? What you really mean is closed the damn tour. Close the door. The imperative is you learn in a book, but you would never just say close the door except under certain circumstances. Sounds like Joe Pesci. I’m watching Casino right now.

S14: Boy, do I have that man’s voice in my ears who let Scorsese he stretch that damn thing out to three hours. That should be one hour and 52 minutes in any case.

S10: Joe Pesci would say, close the fucking door. Okay, that’s him. But if you’re thinking about how you really say it, could you close the door now? What does that literally mean? Are you capable of closing the door in an alternate situation, which apparently is not this one? Would you be capable of closing the door? What a weird way, if you think about it, of trying to get that door closed by somebody who isn’t you. But the idea is to distance it. So if there were this other scenario, do you think you’d be capable of it is the way that we say, let’s make this scenario akin to that alternative scenario. Would you close the door, please? Would you? Well, literally, that is once again in an alternate situation. Would you? Or what it originally meant was did you want because would start this to past tense a want. So did you want to close the door? And so at some point in the past, were you hoping that door would be clothes? And the reason you’re referring to this point in the past, which is not only past but hypothetical, is because that is a very sweet way of saying I would like right now to be like that time in the past, so polite and we don’t even think of it. But somebody can come from another language and really think that Anglos as, for example, linguist Anna Wiehrs, Becka calls people who speak English sheet’s coming from polies makes Anglo sound very. I know the word she’s probably thinking and I’m just going to say fussy. She’s thinking of a word that spelled like that one, although it doesn’t sound exactly like that one. I’ll let some of you fill it in. But fussy that you say you close the door, meaning close the door. Their language is we’re just saying close the door works better. Not that they don’t have other politeness strategies, but those were our older forms of politeness. The elaboration now is something we do formulaically, but it feels a little hokey. The hypotheticals are now so entrenched that we almost forget that their hypothetical and polite and yet a language wants to have its politeness.

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S11: We think language, we think grammar is marking. Something is plural. We think of grammar. Is marking something as being in the past or in the future. We think of grammar as those sorts of things.

S10: We don’t think of politeness as grammar, but it actually is speaking in a way that is appropriate to the status of the other person in relation to you speaking in a way that gives as little offense as possible. That is a unit of what you can call meaning just like plurality, just like tense. If grammar had been created by people who spoke, for example, either Japanese or Javanese, I think that we would think about politeness as more elemental to what languages than we do when we’re speaking our comparatively rather blunt European languages. But languages have a way of keeping certain things. There’s no language where you can’t indicate the number of anything at all. Some languages like plural marking more than others. But there’s no language where you can’t do it at all. A language wants to have some way of indicating tense, whether something’s in the past, whether something’s in the future. Some languages come almost alarmingly close to having no way of indicating past or future in any regular way. But even with them, you can say yesterday and already or tomorrow in most languages, you keep it going. And so if you’re a plural marker wears out, if it falls off like split ends, well, then something else is going to come in. If you’re past tense, marker wears away, a new one is going to come in. Languages, maintain these things. It just kind of keeps going round and round and round. Politeness is one of those things, too. You have to have ways of avoiding giving offence. And so a lot of this new stuff is an indication that the language is doing exactly that. So, for example, hypotheticals, we could say, would you please close the door? Could you please close the door? But think about some other things that we do. So, for example, I’m going to go ahead and take down your credit card number. I’m going to go ahead and somebody will say when what they really mean is I’m going to. Well, what’s the go ahead. When you say I’m gonna go ahead and you’re lending an implication that the person gave you such a go ahead with the idea being that it’s really such a no big deal that you can assume that the person gives you that. Go ahead. Inherently, even if they haven’t said so, I’m going to go ahead. And that’s a hypothetical. That’s a new way of softening the blow by referring to some state of things that, in fact, is not. I’m going to let you go with the implication that you want to go and that therefore you’re just doing them a favor. That is a politeness. I’m going to let you go, especially if really you kind of would like to let go. One way to soften it is to imply that it’s them who want to go. And not a lot of you’re going to say that I should have said they who want to go. So I just said it instead of it being you. Well, that’s fine. We’re renewing our hypotheticals. But that’s why people say go ahead and and let you go and why these days you almost have to say those things to avoid being too abrupt.

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S11: But like and sort of their spread is unexplained in that they spread so prolifically and so far and so quickly at a certain time, that still needs to be addressed and will not be in this podcast. But what they are for is more of that hypothetical party. And so if you’re talking about something being like something in the way of those people on that this American Life segment, what you mean is that it wasn’t it it was kind of like it. You’re distancing yourself from pushing your opinion or the scenario that you’re describing too, directly into people’s faces by implying a certain hypothetical quality, a certain presentational quality, as if you’re putting all of these things up on a stage and showing them, rather than simply being in what you’re describing and being more direct sort of is the same thing. The idea being that you don’t want to own it to very much, you’re not giving a series of assertions. You want to imply that you’re giving a series of propositions or impressions. And so that is a way of being polite that can manifest itself in using crazy conditionals like the would you or could you in going into people’s heads and implying that they’ve said something that they didn’t. So just go ahead and or I’m gonna let you go.

S15: Then also, like in sort of from that same source, but a big part of the new softening, a big part of the way we’re polite these days is with informality.

S11: And the reason for that is that countercultural ideas and therefore behavioral patterns and fashion statements have become part of our war. And Wolf, since the late 60s, if we are more countercultural, if we let it all hang out, so to speak, then that means that a new way of being polite that wouldn’t make any sense to anybody and say, 1890 or even the most people in, say, 1955. Beyond certain circles is to be informal, is to be vernacular and sometimes just vulgar. That’s the way it can go. You know, I know that if some of you were thinking that today’s songs are going to be about the words soft, that at this point I’m probably supposed to play one of those songs called Soft and Wet. And you know what? I’m not going to do that because it’s ever clearer to me how many of you have kids listening to this. And I think that would be too much. So why don’t we listen to a nice show tune from 1964 instead of soft? Let’s make it gentle. This is called Gentle Young Johnny, because I’m gentle. I’m polite. I’m not going to push songs about softness and wetness into kids. So gentle. Young Johnny. This is Tenderloin. This is the guys who wrote Fiddler on the Roof and got very rich. Of course, they had some shows before that that nobody’s heard of except for the sick. And this is a very nice ballad from Tenderloin. For those of you who are music people, listen to the arrangement here. You know, on the piano, it was just blank, blank, blank. And now listen to what they did with the orchestra. The singer is Eileen Rodgers.

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S16: Oh. We made my Johnny so sorry.

S17: Oh, you call me when were you.

S18: You see what I.

S11: What I mean by this informality is, for example, heading out for leaving or hanging out for socializing. Those are informal ways of putting these things. And the reason that you want to be informal, saying things like you’re good to go is because what we’re trying to do is be polite. And so what we seek is a kind of humility. And what that means is that you just know, what I’m trying to do here is give you a sense of how linguistics pretends to be a science. You just know that if people are seeking informality, then that’s why so many white people and non-black people these days are talking more and more like black people. It’s a grand issue. I’ve broached it on this show before. But if you are a modern person, you can’t help noticing that over the past generation, whites use elements of black English in a way that their parents would have. And I’m now at the point where I watch somebody who is 27 and they’re white or something like white, and they use bits and pieces of black slang and even black English constructions and sometimes more than bits and pieces. And I think to myself, their parents are thoroughly countercultural modern people. And yet I know they weren’t doing that when they were in college or a few years out, because now I’m that age. I went to college with people that age as parents. And I know that people were shaggy in their way. You know, people were not Mitt Romney, but black English had not penetrated the culture the way it started to after roughly about nineteen ninety six. And so where that comes from, that idea that a white person is warm by using elements of black English, is this politeness? It actually is a form of politeness, although nobody would think of it that way. You have to think of politeness in a broad sense. I ran across a tweet not long ago written by a friend of mine, and I’m gonna change the friend’s name. Let’s make the friend’s name Heizer, which is random. I don’t know anybody named Heizer. We’re going to make it, Heizer. So this person had a little jokey tweet and they wrote with the name changed. I’ma start selling. Heizer is English tuning forks and rose quartz crystals of steel at seventy four ninety nine ama- spelled I am m.a and it’s this amah which is from black English. Black English has ama- for I’m going to more and more these days. You hear white kids and even, you know, white people 35 using ama-. I remember the first time I heard anybody doing it who was white was back in the late 90s and I was shocked. I thought, well, I never heard a white person say that. And she was surrounded by black people and was what on the West Coast for about ten seconds was called a wigger. And so I thought, well, OK, that’s per-. That’s but she’s a rather, you know, fringe type. Now it’s quite common such that this Heizer would say I’m a start selling Heizer thing with tuning forks and rose quartz crystals of steel at seventy four ninety nine. That is softer than if this person had written I. I’m going to start selling Heizer is English tune. That wouldn’t be funny because the joke here is that it’s it’s a steal at practically $80. So this person is implying jocularly of course that they’re gonna get rich by selling this. You say ama- because that makes you seem a bit like a kid, a bit down with everybody. It’s a softener. And it’s not only nonblack people who do this. Listen to one of our current Democratic candidates for the presidency, Kamala Harris, where she is expressing that she believes that our current president should not have his job. And if you’re gonna say that, and especially in her position, well, you might wanna soften it. You’re not just gonna bark it out. One effective way to put it, one way to make it warmer and therefore more convincing might be to put it in somewhat. You know, a lot of people call these days Ebonics.

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S19: And so here she is talking about getting rid of a certain someone is on a long list of crises of Donald Trump’s making. And that’s why do gotta go. And when I am commander in chief, we will stop this madness.

S15: Oh, by the way, I’m sure you’re wondering at this point, big, bigger, biggest. OK, so more most. What’s the first one? What is it, MOBE? What’s what’s the word? Where’d it start? Bad, worse, worst. Why is it bad? You can tell that that’s not related to worse. Worst.

S11: Haven’t you been awake wondering about this? Well, I could put you to sleep if you would only subscribe to Slate Plus where I will be giving the answers to those questions and more for just a nominal. Fee then you can listen to one me doing an extra bit of fascinating things like that, but also you don’t have to listen to anybody, including me doing any ads.

S15: And frankly, the nominal fee pays not only for my show but for all of Slate’s other fascinating podcasts. But the only way you can get those extra little bits is to subscribe to Slate Plus today. Imagine listening without all those commercials. Plus you get the extra little bit more. Most what was first? You can only know if you subscribed to Slate plus today. Something else that you would predict. One, you would predict that if politeness is now about softening, then not only do you say head out, but you’re going to start speaking more. BLAKLEY But also profanity is going to change. And the way profanity has changed lately and many people will listen to this and wonder what the fuck happened to English? And this is what the fuck happened to it. It’s that profanity is extremely humble. Profanity is extremely vernacular. Profanity is way down low.

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S11: Well, if softening is what we’re all about, if we’re gonna be humble, if we’re gonna try not to stand out, then wouldn’t you just expect that in certain quarters profanity is going to become default instead of being profane? This is how things can happen. Here’s an analogy that is not going to work, but it really is something that I think about. There is a language spoken in Africa called AM a g h e m in I am. You can put emphasis on various things in the sentence, but people have been putting so much emphasis on so many things for so long that now you have to have something emphasized in a sentence. Emphasis is normal. If you really want to give emphasis, you have some other stuff you can do. But basic emphasis is now in every sentence. You can’t avoid it. Emphasis is the default. So, for example, let’s talk about a rat and the rat is moving quickly.

S15: You can say the rat ran, not the baboon. So you’re emphasizing that it was the rat and not that that ape the rat ran, not the parent. Or where did the rat run? The rat ran in the house, not in its burrow. If they burrow don’t know. The rat ran in the house. Not in the burrow or. Oh, no, no. The rat ran in the house. It didn’t walk. The rat ran in the house, OK. But you can’t just say the rat ran that. That won’t work. You have to say the rat ran. Even if you’re not talking about in the house or something like that, you have to say the rat ran the way they do it is not by raising their voice. Hi, this is little particle. So you would say the rat ramble. But if I pronounced that, that makes no sense to any of us, except maybe the one person listening who speaks again. So you have to say the rat ran. There’s no such thing as saying the rat ran. Now let’s compare that to, of all things, succession. Succession is a really wonderful show for listening to the way real people talk. I haven’t heard such delightfully real language on a show since Empire. Empire was very good for that, but we don’t talk about that so much anymore. Succession is what we talk about. And on succession.

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S11: Think about the way in particular the younger men talk. Logan Roy says fuck a lot, but listen in particular to Roman and Kendall. So Kendall is partaking in something dangerous and these kind of labor conditions. And Roman comes in and he’s gonna it’s gonna get him out of there. And they’re brothers and they love each other. And listen to how Roman couches getting Kendell out of there.

S20: Yo, seriously, you chose would love to. Some other time I hear that shit makes you crash like an airbus forelegs 90 feet high. tinner makes good points. I think this leiter’s is a really good point. You know what? Let’s get the fuck out of here.

S11: That’s enough. So notice he says let’s get the fuck out and understand this isn’t a Joe Pesci moment. It’s actually rather tender. Kieran Culkin acts that very well. It’s just got a default expression on his face. He’s not angry or if he is, he isn’t showing it. But the idea is, if the brother’s gonna come in and coax Kendall out of using this substance with these scummy people, he doesn’t say, let’s get out of here. The way that character would have like ten minutes ago, he says, let’s get the fuck out. And that’s the way a brother speaks to a brother with tenderness. Frankly, that’s better than let’s get out. Let’s get out of here. That’s too severe. It sounds like he’s in judgment of Kendall for doing what he’s doing. Let’s get the fuck out. It makes it sound demotic. It makes it sound warm in its way, because if you’re using this profanity, given that it’s technically profane, technically what you’re not supposed to do, then you’re breaking a little rule yourself. So if. Kendall, is there using math or whatever he’s using? You’re going to say, let’s get the fuck out. And that makes you avoid sounding too high and mighty, very articulate, very good writing and very real. Next time you hear a bunch of it’s usually men, frankly, where profanity seems to be the default expression, realize that in a way what they’re doing is calling one another. Dear and darling, that’s what it is. Just think about these things as softeners, as not pushing too hard, as going slow.

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S2: Going to talk to myself again. This is go slow, Johnny. This is from the Noel Coward musical Sail Away. I like the arrangement better than the song, but it’s about going slow and it’s kind of talking to me and whatever this is. Sail away. This is go slow. Johnny in 1961.

S21: Go slow. Chani. Maybe she’ll come to us senses to give her.

S22: People’s feelings are sad, so they try not to try for their silence for.

S21: Go slow, Johnny. No sense in Rush fans.

S23: Right. Right.

S11: In any case, I mentioned that they’re kids listening to the show. One of them is Edward Lamontagne. And Edward, in case you were listening to this in a car somewhere out there in this great nation. This is a shout out to you. Thank you for listening to the show. And I hope you’re learning your softeners as I speak. I am behind on writing. Back to you folks. I’m really sorry about that. I’d say by rote as a tradition at the end of the show to write me and then I end up answering people like six months later, the responsibilities have just piled on. I will answer all of you. I’m sorry that I’m failing as an individual on this, but I will write it after all. Christmas break is coming up and I’m told I don’t have anything to do during it. In any case, let’s go out on something truly obscure but very enjoyable. It’s 1939 and there is a musical nobody need care about. Called Very Warm for Me with Music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. And this is before his long face with Richard Rodgers. Very warm for May is justifiably forgotten except by obsessives like me. But it was very richly scored, and Robert Russell Bennett is best known for scoring. Things end up sounding like showboat or end up sounding like the small house of Uncle Thomas in the King and I. This is him writing Hot Boogie Woogie, which nobody expected that Robert Russell Bennett could orchestrate so beautifully. But this is called Boogie Bacher. Roll hasn’t been heard since 1939. But I find it immensely catchy. Boogie woogie in an orchestra instead of on the piano.

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S24: You can reach us at Lexicon Valley at Slate.com, that’s Lexicon Valley at Slate.com. To listen to past shows and subscribe or just to reach out and. For one thing, notice the reach out is informal. You wouldn’t have put it that way in about 1985. Also reaching out when you reach out, remember that I might only reach back somewhat later, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t care. It just takes time because boy, responsibilities do pile up for all of us, don’t they? In any case, go to slate.com slash Lexicon Valley. Mike Warlow is, as always, the editor. And I am John McWhorter.

S25: Big. Bigger. Biggest.

S15: OK, so more. Most. Well, more as like bigger motives, like biggest what’s the vanilla? So where where did it start? These are the things that nobody wants you to know. Well, you know where it started. It started with Mikal Michael, which these days, if you’re in the right parts of a certain island is Mikell. But in the English that most of us speak, it’s much. And so much more. Most. And the reason that it isn’t something like MO or something like that, that is like, you know, Big’s relationship to bigger and biggest is because in any basic language, you’re going to usually have a distinct word for more.

S11: So you’re not going to have more being based on some simple word that means much. They’re going to be two different words because mourner’s is such a basic concept. So what you have is more and most, but more and most have the same relationship even in terms of their structure as bigger and biggest.

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S15: They start as Mara and must. So Mara and Marasco, which became mosques and then the vowels change. And so with Mara it became more, and then with mosques it became most. But what most really is, is Maust, so to speak. So Biggar biggest more Maust and then Maust becomes most. But the first word is much. And in the same way you have less and liste so bigger, biggest, less least…

S10: Well, what’s the first one? Well, it’s it’s little and less doesn’t come from little. Because you need a special word that means less. That’s gonna come up in most languages. And so Lytell at first becomes little. They have less than liste, but once again the sounds obscure. What is actually more regular underneath it’s really less and then less. And then it changed to liste so bigger, biggest, more.

S15: Maust less, less. But now it’s most and least that sound change all you up. There are other things where really the vowels have completely obscured things. So first. Well, that is what the foremost or something like that. And so first, where’d that come from? It comes from for as in ahead of something. And so first is forced, but the vowels have changed. What’s missing here is the one in the middle. So something had before as unfor- upfront then something can be most for. And that’s first. There is no Forer or Furber like something that’s more first. And you can see how a language might not want to fill in that nuance. And we just don’t. Good, better. Best you can tell that good didn’t become good or and then good or somehow with sound changes became better. Sound changes in that magic better and best. You can kind of feel the relationship there, although it’s kind of messy. But what’s with good? You know, it used to be better. It used to be used to be much better. It was boat. There was a word boat. It was boat better. Best, so to speak.

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S11: Boat men advantage. And that’s a kind of good. And we still have it in that expression to boot. And so he got some pop rocks to boot. And we think we’ll what to choose what that was advantage. So it used to be that it was boot and then better was just bet. There was no ending on it. It was a regular boot. And then to make it better, bet.

S25: And then you had bets at best. And that’s best. So you start with boat bet best.

S11: Then boat falls out and ends up just being kind of a fly caught in the scream when you say to boot bet gets tidied up and because you say bigger, et cetera. Now we say bet ter and then best just stay the way it was.

S25: And so you have good better best. But really it kind of should be boat bet.

S15: Best see. Didn’t you want to know that one more bad worse worst. Well that just kind of happened. And there was an original route this war and that war became more. It became about battles that meant all mixed up. But we only have it now with worse and worst bad ended up being the default. So all sorts of stuff. Vowel change and chance. But that’s why those little corners are so messy. But, you know, used to be better. You used to have boat bet best. I almost wish we could still use those. But, you know, change happens.