With a film adaptation out, and Airborne Toxic Events occurring in reality, it seemed a good time to revisit White Noise, Don DeLillo’s great seriocomic novel of the mid-1980s. Its protagonist, Jack Gladney, is a professor of Hitler Studies preoccupied by an upcoming conference, because he doesn’t speak German.
Gladney begins taking private German lessons, recounting the experience in his wry, anxious voice. Spoiler note: little of what follows has any real bearing on the plot, and it’s not a particularly plot-driven book, but you may prefer to back out if you haven’t read White Noise and might soon.
A mondegreen is a misheard song lyric, like ‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’ (instead of ‘. . . kiss the sky’). The word is itself a mondegreen, stemming from a mishearing of ‘laid him on the green’ as ‘Lady Mondegreen’ in an old ballad. I wrote about mondegreens for Macmillan Dictionary back in 2014.
Recently I discovered an elaborate one of my own. In my early teens I had a rave-music phase, playing a tape compilation continually for months (and baffling my parents, who were paying for classical piano lessons). This was years before I started clubbing, but something in the music’s rebellious energy and fun samples connected with me.
One of the highlights on that tape was a cartoon rave track named ‘Trip to Trumpton’ by Urban Hype. If you don’t know the song or the source of its samples – a children’s TV series from Britain – then I invite you to play a game: Before reading further, write down what you think the line at 0.42 is. It’s repeated four times:
Don’t overthink it or create a spectrogram or anything – just go with your first hunch. It doesn’t have to make sense. My interpretation certainly didn’t. Then let me know in a comment what you heard.
Early in the pandemic, I used Zoom and other video-chat platforms like never before. For me it was mostly social, not work-related: a way to see and stay in touch with family and friends when I wasn’t meeting them in person. I soon noticed ways the technology compromised communication.
Take back-channelling. This is when we say things like mm, yeah, and whoa to convey, minimally, that we’re listening, that we agree, that the speaker should continue their conversational turn, and so on. Back-channelling didn’t work well in some apps, because the timing was slightly out of sync or because the sounds briefly dominated the audio, interfering with the speaker instead of supporting them.
Such problems are not new, but they are newly prevalent. How to tackle them depends on the context: the technology, the conversation type, the people involved, and so on. One thing I did was reduce my back-channelling noises; in their place I nodded more often and more visibly and used more facial expressions.
I also made visual reaction cards based on popular emoji:
Alfred Hitchcock’s comedy-thriller The Trouble with Harry(1955), amidst all its talk of murder and romance, has a fun little exchange of sociolinguistic interest between John Forsythe (‘Sam Marlowe’) and Edmund Gwenn (‘Capt. Albert Wiles’):
Lauren Beukes’s novel Broken Monsters has a short passage on business jargon and young people’s attitudes to it. Layla, a character in her mid-teens, is visiting her friend Cas and introduces Cas’s father:
Her dad is a tech-preneur. Name a major company in Silicon Valley and he’s ‘pulled a stint there’ – his words. It’s why they moved from Oakland, California. Detroit is friendlier to start-ups: lower overheads, tax incentives, hungry talent, cheap office space in TechTown. He’s bought into the city’s revitalization ‘with bells on’. Layla loves hearing him talk. It’s another language, where any word can be verbed. She and Cas have a secret drinking game they play during dinner, taking a sip of juice every time he uses techno jargon like ‘angel-investor’.
‘How’s Crater going?’ Layla asks him, trying to remember the name of his big start-up project.
‘Curatr,’ he corrects her automatically, rolling the trrrr.
Some examples certainly qualify as tech jargon or terminology: the portmanteau tech-preneur and the fictional brand Curatr, with its fashionably dropped vowel (cf. Flickr, Tumblr, Grindr, Qzzr). TechTown, meanwhile, is a real-life hub for entrepreneurship in Detroit, notable in this context for its CamelCase style.
Other examples cited – pulled a stint, with bells on, angel investor – are not what I’d consider tech jargon, but the passage is from Layla’s pov, so I figure it’s more that she has only heard these phrases from Cas’s dad and associates them with his industry.
Her observation about verbing applies to English more generally.
All words may be verbed. Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing wrong with this.
But I suppose the point is that tech execs (and managers, advertisers, etc.) are more likely to do it with abandon, and that when you’re a teenager and it’s your dad or your friend’s dad, it can be a particular source of interest, embarrassment, or entertainment.
It’s refreshing to see this form of language, so often maligned, portrayed positively. I’m reminded of a cartoon by Dana Fradon included in The New Yorker Cartoon Album 1975–1985:
[Caption: “You’re a good man, Washbourne. I like the way you use nouns as verbs.”]
If you enjoyed my quiz on nouning and verbing, you might like my new quiz on portmanteau words, now up on the Macmillan Dictionary site. It will test your knowledge of novel portmanteaus such as plogging, smombie, theyby, and zoodles. It’s multiple choice, so you can guess at any strange ones.
Portmanteau words are words that blend two or more others in structure and meaning, like smog (smoke + fog), brunch (breakfast + lunch), and portmonsteau (portmanteau + monster). That last one hasn’t caught on yet. They should be distinguished from compound words like teapot and seawater, which also combine words but don’t blend them.
George Orwell’s famous essay on the politics of language, strained and self-contradictory as it is, rests on the incontestable idea that people manipulate language for political ends – whether it’s to prod something improper towards legitimacy or to dodge responsibility for interpersonal shortcomings. The political, after all, is personal, and language is as personal as it gets.
The Evasion-English Dictionary by Maggie Balistreri (Em Dash Group, 2018) shines a welcome light on such language in its social guise and dissects it for our pleasure and occasional squirming. A slim volume expanded from its original 2003 edition, the EED packs considerable insight and wit into its 132 pages, showing how we routinely choose (and avoid) certain words to massage the truth, let ourselves off the hook, and passive-aggressively get our own way.