Last weekend at a swim meet, two couples sitting behind us in the stands talked without interruption for long stretches of time, broken only when they got up out of their seats to go out. They’d sit back down and the torrent would resume. It’s not what they were talking about, but that they seemed incapable of keeping their mouths shut. There was no silence one of them would not fill, and then the others would lend their voices, most often at the same time. I know well enough that some people are “verbal thinkers,” more gregarious than me, and everyone certainly isn’t a poet, but these parents seemed incapable of not expressing anything and everything that occurred to them. The meaning of the words themselves was overcome by the sheer number of them. It was hard not to turn and plead Just… shut… UP!
The other common verbal phenomenon which accomplishes the same thing—eclipsing a sentence’s meaning—is substituting “um” and “like” and “y’know” liberally in place of actual vocabulary. It’s not just my kids and their peers who do this, it’s adults and colleagues and news reporters. I work with international students who know English as a second language, and they’re among the worst offenders I’ve encountered, learning the language from, um, y’know, teachers who talk like that.
In both cases, to use the old analogy, the hearer (inadvertent or not) loses the sentence’s forest of meaning in the speaker’s trees of too many words. There is more noise and less impact in the hearer’s ear. Aside from annoying, that’s too bad, too, because our language, and through it, the quality of the connection we make with others, is amplified by verbal economy: placing the right word in the right place (and not ten times in a row), using pause or silence to reinforce a point, arranging words to produce clarity the first time through. A “turn of phrase” is just that—using words in a way that catches the ear and makes the point in way that’s appealing, clever, efficient, maybe even beautiful.
In In Cold Blood, Truman Capote described the locals’ reaction to the quadruple murder in their small town as “amazement, shading into dismay; a shallow horror sensation that cold springs of personal fear swiftly deepened.” A lovely turn of phrase; one knows exactly how they were feeling. This week, a caller into the leading afternoon sports talk show in Boston said that the train from Foxboro after a New England Patriot’s game is “a combination of a drunk tank and the New Delhi local.” Get the picture? I laughed out loud.
It’s not about keeping thoughts and feelings to oneself, or playing into the stereotype of the taciturn, often repressed New Englander—or whatever your local version is—it’s about allowing the language at hand to do what it does best: express complexity of concept and feeling with chosen words rather than all those that tumble and trip out, signifying nothing.