Encouraged by Carrie’s plug, I read Leslie Savan’s book, “Slam Dunks and No Brainers”:
It’s an entertaining and thought-provoking look at “pop language,” which are a particular kind of enjoyable and powerful cliche that we use in speech (and sometimes in writing) to convey “attitude” (that is, ‘tude). I’m not quite sure where the boundary falls between rote phrases (e.g., “entertaining and thought-provoking”), cliches (e.g., “it was raining like hell out there”), pop language (e.g., “chill out, dude”), and jokes (e.g., “he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed”). But I think the idea is that pop phrases are sometimes just fun to say (sort of like the linguistic equivalent of putting on a fancy outfit or driving a sports car) or pwerful (“chill out” is hard to respond to!). Reading the book was fun, sort of the way it’s fun to see a movie that was shot in one’s hometown, or the way it’s fun (and disturbing) to see logos for McDonalds etc. in foreign countries.
Savan argues that we’ve gone overboard with these phrases (I think that “going overboard” is a cliche but not a pop phrase) and they make us dumber, substituting pre-cooked thoughts for orignal thoughts, substituting scripted exchanges for spontaneous interactions, and so forth. I don’t have anything to say about this claim–except that I’m not sure exactly how it could be studied, and I would also consider making the opposite claim, which is that cliched thought-modules actually allow us to express more sophisticated concepts in plainer language (see here and here). She makes her argument from a politically-liberal perspective (by using pop phrases, we’re acting more like passive consumers than like politically-involved citizens) but I think a similar case could be made from the conservative direction in terms of loss of traditoinal values.
As always, the important question is, How does this relate to statistics teaching
But my main point of reference when reading this book was my experience as a statistics teacher. I use these phrases in class all the time, and I enjoy when my students use them too. (The first time I ever heard “Woo-hoo” uttered by anyone other than Homer Simplson was in 1994 when a student used the phrase in my decision analysis class.) Why do I use pop phrases? They’re fun to say, they help project my image as a cool, down-to-earth dude (“down-to-earth” is a cliche, I think; “dude” is pop), they make the students laugh, thus relaxing their muscles so I can cram that extra bit of statistics into them (just kidding on that one, but it is pleasant to hear them laugh; more on this below).
When pop phrases don’t pop
One of the themes of Savan’s book is that pop talk is so fun and powerful, it’s no surprise that we do more and m ore of it. But it can backfire. Maybe simply by ticking people off, but also because many of my graduate students and colleagues are not from the United States, and they “just don’t get it” sometimes. Just as our kickball references fall flat to people who were not kids in American schoolyards, similarly, those without our bakcgrounds (or just of different age groups) won’t appreciate references to “identical cousins” or that episode on the Brady Bunch where Peter’s voice changed. Or even many of the phrases in Savan’s book. I’ve found even Canadians to be baffled by what we would consider fundamental pop phrases (and I’m sure I’d be baffled by theirs, too).
This really comes up when I give talks to foreign audiences. Even setting aside language difficulties and the need to speak slowly, I have to tone down my popisms. Also in other settings . . . for example, the profs in the stat dept here are almost all from other countries. Once in a faculty meeting, I responded to someone’s statement with a fast, high-pitched, Eddie-Murphy-style, “Get the fuck outta here.” My colleauges were offended. They didn’t catch the Murphy reference and thought I was saying “Fuck” to this guy. Which, of course, I wasn’t.
For a teacher, the other drawpack to pop phrases is that they can be more memorable than the points they are used to illustrate. This probably happens all the time with me. My tendency is to go for the easy laugh–and the bar is set so low in a statistics class that just about any pop reference will get a laugh–without always keeping my eyes on the prize (cliche, not pop phrase, right?), which is to give the students the tools they need to be able to solve problems. (That last phrase sounds like a cliche, I know it does, but it’s not!, I swear!)
Anyway, that’s my point, my one suggested addition to Savan’s book: pop language can actually impede conversation, get in the way of conveying meaning, when we speak to people outside the in-group. I think this will always limit the extent of pop phrases, at least for those of us who need to communicate to people from other countries.