Television don't talk good. One could say it massacres the language, but one could also say, just as justifiably, that it establishes the language. What we say is greatly affected by what we watch, and hear, on television, and that's not incredible, that's inevitable.
TV invents words, changes words and, most of all, soaks up words and phrases from regions and subcultures and introduces them into the main-stream. So that born-again adjectives like "heavy" and "into" were plucked out of the hippie culture of the '60s and, through their use on television, have passed into everyday vocabulary, just as the new meanings given words like "closet" are no longer the property of homosexual subculture because television has absorbed and homogenized them.
Now giddy contestants on game shows regularly identify themselves as closet gardeners or closet poets or closet nuclear physicists (well, that's a rare one), and nobody wonders what they're talking about. Nobody wonders because everybody watches television, and videospeak is the national language. Television is America's dictionary, as well as its mirror.
Aside from enterprising politicians who occasionally come up with a beaut like "South Succotash," nothing introduces buzzwords into the culture with more efficiency than TV commercials, which are designed to be instantly memorable and conditioned-responsive. For years grammarians and English teachers have railed against the debasement of language by commercials that tell viewers it's all right to say "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should" and "Raid hunts bugs down and kills them dead," but to no avail.
Yes, a classroom full of toddlers in some American town (sufferin' South Succotash, perchance?) really did once tell a teacher that they spelled "relief" r-o-l-a-i-d-s. You can rail against this sort of thing, but you can't fight it. Children are bound to respond to appeals on behalf of candy that tastes more "chocolatey" and catsup that is sworn to be "thickerer" and cheese snackies that have "more ummm-ummmmm in every crunch." Their baloney has a first name; it's O-s-c-a-r.
A 3-year-old in the back seat of his parents' car in Georgia reminded them of his dependence on television commercials recently when he pointed to a fast-food restaurant and said, "Look -- a participating Hardee's!"
The language doesn't have to be mangled, just catchy -- "Hey, I could have had a V-8!" Set to music equally catchy, it can infect millions of minds and amend millions of vocabularies at once. Thus the father of three daughters in Arlington, Va., having purchased a video game for the family, has grown accustomed to the girls' asking the musical question, always to the tune of the jingle they hear in a commercial, "Can we play Atari today?"
Writers of weekly TV series try to introduce similar ring-around-the collarisms into their shows; it's free word-of-mouth advertising if they can get kids to imitate a Fonzie or a Gary Coleman in a few simple words. At a family Christmas gathering in Garden City, N.Y., a 10-year-old boy offered his impression of Johnny Slash on "Square Pegs"; he put on a pair of sunglasses and said, "Totally different head." The writers of the show and the CBS Television Network would have been pleased.
"Totally different head" is an expression by way of Valley talk.The Valley is the San Fernando Valley, just over the hills from Hollywood, and most entertainment television is produced there. That fact, and a Frank Zappa song, are what made Valley talk a national phenomenon.
In the '50s, television emanated from New York, and New York expressions and references permeated the language. No more. We are now all being taught the language according to Southern California, much of it as translated in the Midwest by Phil Donahue, who has made buzzwords out of "caring" and "supportive," "mainstream" and "parent" as verbs, and the expressions "speaks to the issue" (or "speaks to the whole question of...") and "The record should show."
We try to be "straight" and "open" now because these cliches are passed along daily and nightly in television dramas and comedies, as well as sensitivity talk shows, along with what has in recent years become the most common adjective in the American lexicon, "special." Special has become a not very specialized word. It's like "um-gawah" in the Tarzan movies; it can mean anything. It can mean physically handicapped or physically dexterous. When you reach out, reach out and touch someone, you tell them, "You're very special to me." Pity the girlfriend who's not been told by her boyfriend by now, "You're a very special lady." How special could she be?
Television has its own internal language, but much of it becomes external and seeps into everyday usage. Everyone knows what a "sitcom" is now (a word coined in trade papers -- "the trades" -- and just about everyone knows what they are, too), and that programs "air" tonight or "aired" last night. "Prime time" has caught on, though "day parts" hasn't -- yet. The public knows what "ratings" and "Nielsens" are, what an "anchor" is and, although Johnny Carson still can't pronounce "puberty" (he says "pooh-berty"), he has helped educate America on what "sweep weeks" and "overnights" mean to the TV industry -- roughly, everything and a half.
"Freeze-frame" is so common now it became a hit song, and kids on every backlot ball diamond in the country call playfully for "replays." In fact, replay is old-hat. More common now is the household phrase attributable to trailblazing sportscaster Warner Wolf, "Let's go to the videotape," along with the ever-popular, "Let's see that again."
Because there is so much chitchat about show business on the Carson show and other talk shows, many people who don't need to be are probably now familiar with terms like "rim shot" (comic punctuation from a drummer), "shtick," and "segue" (pronounced "seg-way," dating back to radio and meaning a change from one thing to another); know when a comedian is "on a roll" or doing "a bit" or "a piece of material"; and certainly realize what a singer means when he refers to a "gig." Television tells us more about detergents, cat foods and show business than any mortal could ever want or desire to know.
Of all the words corrupted by misuse on television -- from "infer," which is invariably confused with "imply," to squandered hyperboles like "unbelievable," "revolutionary" and "fantastic," to the perverse appropriation of once-meaningful words like "natural" -- none is currently more maligned than the word "live." Live television used to mean that what you were watching was happening as you saw it. But at this season's "Kennedy Center Honors," Walter Cronkite told the crowd in the Opera House that the program was "live-on-tape" and added, "I've never quite understood what that means." It's similar to phrases like "recorded live" that are helping to kill the word live dead. It's been reduced to such meaninglessness that local stations now boast that their newscasts are "Live at 5:30" or "Live at 11." This is news, that the news is live?
This just in: the news is live. Still ahead: "Coming up next." Don't go away; we'll be right back.
Now this: to air is human; to survive television, divine.