I recall when my youngest came home from preschool one day and uttered his first culturally current phrase. "Whatever," he said with perfect...

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“Slam Dunks and No-Brainers”
by Leslie Savan
Knopf, 340 pp., $23.95

I recall when my youngest came home from preschool one day and uttered his first culturally current phrase. “Whatever,” he said with perfect deadpan inflection and the requisite shrug. Like the rest of us, he had succumbed to the allure of what author Leslie Savan calls “pop talk.”

“Slam Dunks and No-Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and, Like, Whatever,” Savan’s savvy and entertaining exposé of the modern vernacular, can be maddening, if only because it will make you self-conscious of how you — how we all — speak at times, from the mildly stinging “hel-lo?” to the declarative “I don’t think so!” to “biz” words such as “on the same page” or a favorite at my office, “a win-win situation.”

It soon becomes clear, however, that Savan, a former columnist for The Village Voice, is not out to scold us but to reveal the engine beneath the hood: how American idiomatic speech has changed and expanded in the past 50 years or so, chiefly under the influence of media, marketing and technology.

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I was skeptical that there was much more to say on this subject beyond a listing and derivation of snappy phrases; the lengthy subtitle seemed to cover it all. Savan persuaded me otherwise. The range of influences on pop talk is astonishing, mirroring the assortment of topics in, say, a daily newspaper: news, politics, business, sports, media and advertising.

Images have trumped words, at least since the 1960 presidential debates, when John F. Kennedy’s cool TV persona prevailed over Nixon’s more substantive answers but flustered visage. In the ensuing decades, Savan observes, words followed suit, becoming more like images with the “burn-into-your-brain zap of a picture.” Television and computers speeded up information and slogan making, altering the language itself, although new phrases and locutions almost always originate from real people. “… Clever constructions don’t simply trickle down from sitcoms, movies, ads, and talk shows,” Savan writes. “Almost invariably, pop language bubbles up from ‘the people’ and is relayed back to them by the media.”

One of the major sources of popular expressions is black English. The hip-hop phrases “you go girl” and “you’re the man” are now thoroughly mainstream, permeating corporate and political worlds. On the other end of the “cool” spectrum is the cachet of business and governmentspeak. In a fascinating chapter, Savan exposes the vacuity beneath the veneer of words such as community, empowerment and philosophy (as in “Home Depot has a four-part merchandising philosophy”).

Savan’s verbal barrage is sometimes over the top. A long list of examples of the expression “Yesss!” is particularly irksome. But this cavil aside, hers is a riff worth listening to, like this one on the deceptive punch-line power of pop talk: “Pop’s prefab repartee can serve as thought replacement. Get over it. Not ready for prime time. It’s a no-brainer … Whatever point a speaker is making, it gains acceptance not on its merits, but on how familiarly it’s presented and how efficiently tongue snaps into groove.”

Both purveyor and interpreter of pop language, Savan proves that she can “talk the talk,” provoke serious thought and have fun doing it.