Other Matters: Two Things About Language

First thing:

Have you noticed that half of the answers to questions and half of reports (statistic not scientifically confirmed) on radio and television news and interview programs begin with, “So…”

News Anchor: For the latest on White House reaction to those discouraging employment figures, here’s correspondent Ralph Glutz.

Glutz: So, Robert, the President chooses to see the glass half full…

Interviewer: Coach, did you ever dream that the outcome of a contest against your old rival would be determined by a weird shoestring catch in the bottom of the ninth?

Coach: So, that’s what makes baseball such a great game, y’know?

Are these superfluous uses of the word a way, in uncertain times, of appearing to avoid commitment? Or are they, indeed, superfluous? Why have they suddenly proliferated? What part of speech is “so” when it precedes an answer or a statement— adjective, adverb, pronoun, conjunction?

I suppose it’s preferable to, “Uh,” and it goes nicely with another omnipresent advancement in articulate English usage, witness the waiter who asked my table full of beer drinkers the other day, “So, ‘sup?”

Second thing:

From time to time, the Rifftides staff likes to tap the wisdom of Mr. P.C., the dispenser of advice to jazz musicians who find themselves out of touch with fine points of behavior on and off the bandstand. In his current column, Mr. P.C. addresses a matter of language that relates to economic resourcefulness and well-being.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

When people use big words to describe their music, is that supposed to make it better? Like I know a bassist who says he’s “contextualizing” his music. Why does he do that?

— Bassist Uses Lofty Language

Dear BULL:

He’s practicing Grantspeak, of course. Here’s the story: A few decades ago, granting agencies grudgingly started funding jazz projects. But how can their panelists judge the applications when they know nothing about jazz music?

Well, what they ARE comfortable judging is intellect, so they depend on jazz artists to put it on full display. That’s why savvy applicants like your bassist friend keep their eye on the prize and practice at every opportunity. In fact, if you’d stuck around a little longer you might have even seen him go from contextualizing to “re-contextualizing.” Extra credit!

Although grantors were the original targets of Grantspeak, its use has become more widespread. Other people in positions of power in the jazz world — especially presenters and journalists — have proven equally susceptible to its charms. And it’s even starting to influence artists, not only in their music, but also in their interactions:

Andrew: “Hey, Bob, what’s happening?”
Bob: “You know, just shedding, trying to keep my chops up. How about you?”
Andrew: Actually, in my new multidisciplinary song cycle, based on a contemporary reading of recovered scripts from the earliest matriarchal societies, I’m re-examining the relationship between soloist and ensemble, looking for ways to evoke a more egalitarian, communal paradigm.”
Bob (embarrassed): “Cool. Um, guess I’ll go practice Stablemates.”
Andrew (silently): “Heh, heh, heh.”

People ask where jazz is heading, BULL, and I can answer definitively: Grantspeak is the future! Not only as a descriptive language, but as a quasi-paradigmatic, non-idiomatic re-contextualization of jazz itself. Buy your thesaurus now, before you and your music are left behind!

To see all of Mr. P.C.’s June column, visit his Facebook page.

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  1. Mike Harris says

    I have likewise been noticing the wildfire spread of this “So” trope in recent months—I would rate the use of the “So” opening on NPR to be actually HIGHER than your 50% estimate. So, is this just one more evidence of the frightening imperative to conform that is gnawing away at our society? So, who starts these things?

  2. says

    So, like, about Grantspeak and y’know, stuff: I was asked by a musician to write a letter in support of his project, which I was happy to do, thinking it worthwhile. I sent a copy to him as well as the Agency, and heard from him a couple of days later that I might have torpedoed his application: my letter had nothing but facts! I had made the mistake of not writing for the Agency — it sounded like a news item, too clearly stated, with no wriggle room for the panel… I still don’t know if he was kidding me or not, but he did eventually get the grant.

    So, like did you, like, ever, um have a similar experience y’know what I’m sayin’?

    • Doug Ramsey says

      In my days of grant pursuit when I was in charge of programs for a nonprofit organization dedicated to making professional journalists less ignorant, foundations and other grant makers demanded quantification, a favorite term of the Ford, Rockefeller, Johnson, etc., etc., etc., foundations. “Please offer quantification, in the form of statistical evidence, that your work results in improvement of the quality of information reaching the public through the news.”

      With a straight face and a light heart, I once told a foundation program officer that because of our education of journalists in analytical economic thinking, 27 reporters writing about the Defense Department budget had not made errors when adjusting for inflation. I expected a guffaw.

      “Twenty-seven!” she said, taking notes. We got the grant.

  3. KENNY HARRIS says

    Since re-settling back in the UK, I’ve noticed (at least) two words that are overly used (and driving me crazy). Everything is “brilliant.” The other word is “absolutely.”

    • Doug Ramsey says

      “Absolutely” is getting a good workout over here, too. It seems to have replaced “yes” as an answer.

  4. Charlton Price says

    My nomination for Battered Word Syndrome:

    Us of “incredible” and “incredibly” as all purpose superlatives.

    “How was your trip to Paris?” “Incredible.”

    “How was dinner last night?” “Incredible.”

  5. says

    A favorite word used by the critics of the 1950s was “cohesive.” If music was cohesive, it was good, but I never knew how to tell whether it was or not.

    • says

      Bill, re ‘cohesive’ . My Oxford English Dictionary has it as ‘sticking together; tendency to remain united.’
      I’d guess that, with musicians, you’d have to watch what happens when one goes to the mens room (or women’s room) – or perhaps goes off on an improvisational limb ….
      Incidentally the fashionable trend here in U.K. is to construct every sentence so that the voice can, at the end, make the statement a question. It takes work, but many younger interviewers and their respondents seem to have mastered it.

  6. says

    So, that’s an absolutely incredible discourse on the inflationary usage of nonsensical filler words. What a brilliant analysis, Doug.

    So, there’s one word missing in this context; namely the absolutely redundant “hello?!”, used rather as a rhetorical question instead of a friendly, well, hello!. — It’s mostly used in US teeny soaps, and this bad habit has also turned up in Germany’s TV soaps; but not only there, also in real life conversations among … grown-ups.


    P.S. — There was another “bad” habit in German jazz during the 1980′s & early ’90′s: Something had to be “re-composed”. Just to arrange an old composition was not enough. … Really absolutely true.

    John Coltrane tunes like “Giant Steps”, or “Naima” were not only performed, or newly interpreted, they had to get “re-composed”; also Jimi Hendrix, or Miles Davis: “Re-composed”.

    Say what?!

    • says

      Here’s another one which has found its way from your soaps to our lingual expression: I’ve seen a public TV survey where people on the street where questioned about unknown, or rarely used words.

      There was a mother with her young son, who knew the correct meaning of the word in question right away. Then the TV guy asked the mother: “Did you know that your son does know such rare words?”

      The mother replied with “No?”

      Now, I ask you, as native speakers: Is this “no?” as a question—spoken loudly with the expression of uncertainty, instead of “no!” as an exclamation/statement—the common usage of the word “no”, or was this kind of “no?” first used in US-teeny-soaps? … Hello?

  7. says

    Unfortunately, a lot of jazz music itself contains the same types of doggerel – licks you’ve heard a million times before and mindlessly repeated when taking a “ride.”

  8. Jim Brown says

    Yes, these language things are a PITA. So are some of the young reporters who haven’t learned to articulate well enough that they can be clearly understood. Since when is that no longer a requirement of working in radio?

    My greatest disgust is with the current fashion of those historians using the present tense when discussing events that have occurred decades (or centuries) ago. A few years ago, I looked forward to enjoying a new biography of Bach, one of my very favorite musicians, but gave up in disgust in the early chapters when the author kept saying things like “Bach goes to . . . .” and Bach writes . . . .” as if he were alive. He’s NOT. Use the past tense when you’re talking about stuff that happened 300 years ago, dammit!

  9. says

    I think the quintessential statement about the foibles of language has been made by Clark Terry:

    The rhythm section on that 2006 Legends of Jazz broadcast was Willie Pickens, piano; Larry Gray, bass; Leon Joyce, Jr.,drums

    • says

      And did you notice the shot of Chris Botti who was also on stage and watching Clark? It would be interesting to hear your take on Botti’s work sometime.

      • Doug Ramsey says

        It is encouraging to think that Mr. Botti may have benefited from his proximity to Clark Terry during the taping of that program

        • says

          Among other things, Botti appropriated stylistic elements of Miles Davis and watered them down into a pop art form that is often kitsch and superficial. The problem is that he is far more popular than most great jazz musicians and has thus come to represent the art form. And even elements of the cultural establishment embrace him, as seen for example, in the PBS special in 2006 that featured him. Some serious jazz criticism of his work might be helpful – even if a difficult and unpleasant task. Unfortunately, looking around the web I find almost nothing in this regard, though it’s quite possible I’ve missed something. Or maybe silence really is the best response.

          • Doug Ramsey says

            Granting his work the status of art, pop or otherwise, is generous. Other than that observation, silence is the only response from here. Life is short and there is worthwhile music to hear.

          • David says

            Without question, silence is the best response. However, I can’t resist taking the bait. Botti is to jazz what Andre Rieu is to classical music. Botti is to jazz as Velveeta is to cheese. Botti is to jazz as glamour is to beauty. Botti is to jazz as fluorescence is to sunlight. As for the “cultural establishment”, Botti is to jazz as pledge break specials are to culture. To be fair, the guy can play the trumpet, and who can blame him if he’d rather be rich than be a struggling artist. In fact, most jazz musicians will do some amount of commercial work and we only resent the ones who are wildly successful at it.

  10. says

    “But you know what? If I keep talking like this, I’m going to get elected!” Would that it were, CT, would that it were….

    (Of course, 35 years ago, Clark claimed that his spieling was the 18 missing minutes of the Watergate/Nixon tapes, and I believed him then).

  11. mel says

    So I was totally beginning to think that the word totally had now replaced the word absolutely. So was I totally wrong?