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Opinion Linguistic meme infecting our conversation ... basically

George HasaraBack in my younger days, the dominate filler expression in conversation was “you know.” It was a verbal comma that overpopulated speech. It sounded more hip than being silent or uttering, uh. It is said that nature abhors a vacuum and that must be true concerning speech as well. "You know" is still going strong, but has been replaced as the numberone speech extender by the word “basically.”

A few months ago while having a conversation with a person who is currently in his younger days, my attention was drawn to his propensity of interjecting “basically” in what seemed to be every other sentence. I decided that the next time he and I spoke, I would count the times “basically” was used in a two-minute span. I never made the survey because I discovered that I too, had been infected by the “basically” meme and unbeknownst to my conscious mind, had been regurgitating the word on a regular basis.

According to Wikipedia, meme is "an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture." Just as no one designed the English language as a whole, there isn't any centralized planning for popularity of words or expressions. Apparently, we are good at mimicking each other. I would like to believe that the way I phrase a conversation is unique to me but I also, put the me in meme.

Another gripe with “basically” is that basically for the most part, the word serves no function in sentence structure. It's one thing if a word is simply overused such as “awesome,” but it's another matter when it's unnecessary. “My articles express my opinion.” “My articles basically express my opinion.” In the second example, the word basically, if it serves any purpose, basically weakens or qualifies the statement. It's all so much linguistic fiber that my system has a problem handling it.

I tried to switch usage from “basically” to other words such as “essentially,” but found that I was running into the same problem. In most conversations the words essentially, fundamentally, inherently are just fancier variations on the theme of extending speech without adding meaning. It reminds me of stating an opinion by beginning with “It's my opinion ...” as if it would be someone else's.

A multi-lingual friend of mine has constructed a great spoof in which he will teach you a handful of words in a given language so you can sound like a native speaker without of course, actually saying anything. The order of words isn't important. “Basically...you know... um... ah... like... absolutely... right! It sounds particularly impressive or threatening in various languages. While the random mixture of words may not mean anything, they are in fact, the sound of pondering. And, that's something to ponder.

Perhaps, I'm missing something with this attitude toward maximum efficiency with words. Could it be that speech does not always need to convey exact meaning and can be relaxed? After all, what's the harm with a few superfluous words between friends - you know?





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published: 10/18/2013
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