Lessons In Reality

Now what’s this title about? I know that’s what you’re thinking. Maybe I didn’t set it up right. Maybe it’s a foul play on words. Oh, my bad.

“My bad.” How I hate that expression. With origins in a hip street culture that thinks it’s oh so clever, sayings like that get bandied about by people who should know better. Not long ago I heard Meredith Vieira say “my bad” regarding some blunder she made on the “Today Show.” It would have made my old sixth-grade English teacher, Helen Turner, pull out her hair.

“My bad.” Want to sound illiterate? Want to display your lack of education? Well here you go. Indulge in the hip language of the moment and all its other cool expressions such as …

“It is what it is.” Now there’s an expression that tells you a lot. “Say, can you tell me why the stock market bellied up?”

“It is what it is.”

“Hmmmm, okay.”

That incredibly versatile saying can apply to most anything. It’s a favorite of NFL coaches who have to face the media after a pitiful showing. Translation? “Next question.”

There was an old fellow back home and I can’t recall his name, if indeed, I knew it to start with, but he was smart. A genius. He had one of the most original ways of avoiding a sticky question I’ve ever heard. His reply was artistry. It stopped interrogators in their tracks.

“Say do you ever hear that my wife’s running around?”

“You’re talking; I’m listening.”

Brilliant.

As a man who depends on language for many things other than conversation, I pay attention to how people use words. Remember “groovy?” A counterculture aka “hippy” term, it replaced synonymous but ordinary words like “excellent” or “great,” adding a dash of contemporary spice to blatherings. It was a cool term that took its origin from the old vinyl records, which had grooves. Those old records, by the way, are collected because they’re … you guessed it, cool.

Which brings me to Kookie Burns, the cat who combed his hair all the time. In his day, “cool” was in. The 1950’s doo-wop era produced cool guys like Kookie, men whose body movements, postures, and facial contortions conveyed a sense of, well, aplomb and aloofness. Don’t mess with guys like that. Ever.

The Fonz was cool. The Fonz was, to be truthful, sadly funny. He was the stereotypical Italian-American dropout, but that seemed to be okay as he ascended to “Happy Day’s” lead character. Ever notice how you can stereotype some groups but not others? Be careful whom you stereotype. The culture police will get you. The same shoe doesn’t fit all feets you could say. Oops! My bad.

Every region, every generation has its sayings. Fortunately, most of them slip beneath the sands of time to be forgotten. Some have a way of sticking around though. Such as …

“That dog won’t hunt.” This ultra-Southern saying means “Uh, you’re full of it fellow. What you say ain’t adding up.”

A great figure of speech, like a great figure, makes things more interesting, but every now and then along comes some nonsensical saying that catches on. Such is the case with “my bad.” I think one reason people latch onto it is because it is an obvious grammatical flop. Say it a lot, and it’s like, “Well obviously I know grammar. In fact, I know grammar so well, I can break the rules whenever I want, just like Hemingway did.” Right.

I can see Jethro Bodine with his sixth-grade education making an excuse to Jed Clampett why he failed to clean out the cement pond. “Aw shucks, Uncle Jed, I seed that pretty gal’s legs and forgot all about the cement pond. My bad.”

Abusing and contorting language … it’s a sport these days.

One thing Helen Turner taught me in the sixth grade was you never say “each and every.” And yet, even broadcasters like NBC’s Brian Williams uses that grammatical faux pas without a second thought. “We want to thank each and every one of you for tuning in tonight.” Say what?

How about thanking each of you or every one of you. Each and every? It’s redundant. But don’t let redundancy hold you back. In fact, a clever redundancy can make your career. One of the landmark rock ‘n’ roll songs was “You Ain’t Nothing But A Hound Dog.” Last time I checked, a hound is a, well, a dog. See? Suppose Elvis had rocked out “You Ain’t Nothing But a Persian Cat, just a’clawing all the time?”

It’s the rhythm thing that makes Hound dog work and it’s the cadence of “each and every” that traps so many souls who know better into uttering it. “Each and every” … it has a swinging rhythm. It’s irresistible to those who want to sound … cool. “I want to thank each and every one of you for reading my columns …” Ugh.

One brilliant October afternoon I was busy writing, when my phone rang. Come to think of it phones back then, like now, didn’t really ring. Oops! My bad. Two brothers who inherited their dad’s insurance agency were arguing as to whether “irregardless” is a word. I imagine they were writing marketing copy … “We’ll cover each and every loss you have. You can count on us to come through when things go wrong each and every time.”

Apparently the argument was a good one as one brother gave me the blow-by-blow description of their disagreement. The climax came with “Let’s call Tom. He’ll know.” And so I got the call.

“Tom, I say irregardless is a word but Bill says it isn’t. Who’s right?”

I knew the answer but got a book off my shelf, The Careful Writer, and thumbed through its alphabetical pages until I spotted the word “irregardless” right behind “irony.” You have to cite things to some you know. One word summed up irregardless’ usage: “illiterate.”

That was in the late 1980s. Were it today, I imagine I would have heard the brother in error say, “My bad. Irregardless is illiterate.” I never knew if the brothers had a bet riding on me, but I bet they did.

To err is human, but to parrot a transient saying because everyone else does is outright foolish. Don’t put your lack of smarts on display. Don’t be a monkey see monkey do. Talk like you know English. Talk like you conjugate verbs and master alliteration in your sleep.

Most of all, resist the urge to sound smart when it’s dumb. Dare to be cliché resistant. Dare to be uncool. Dare to be ungroovy.

But these things will persist among the cooler crowd. That’s why today I salute you Mr. Hijacker and hawker of hip sayings always aspiring for super hipdom head to head with your high and mighty histrionic pals. No one can parrot clichés and tired expressions like you. You, oh vulture of the vernacular, take a malnourished vocabulary and make sure it stays that way. So crack open a Webster’s dictionary Mr. Hijacker of hip language and hot retaliations, this bads for you.

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Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, where four wonderful English teachers gave him a love for language. People first came to know Tom’s work in South Carolina Wildlife magazine, where he wrote features and served as managing editor.Tom’s written over 1,000 columns and features and seven traditionally published books. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and his and Robert Clark’s latest volume of Reflections of South Carolina. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground in 2011 and 2012.He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina. Visit my website at www.tompoland.net Email me at [email protected]