The Way We Talk Now: Commentaries on Language and Culture from NPR's Fresh Air

by Geoffrey Nunberg

This engaging collection of National Public Radio broadcasts and magazine pieces by one of America’s best-known linguists covers the waterfront of contemporary culture by taking stock of its words and phrases. From our metaphors for the Internet (“Virtual Rialto”) to the perils of electronic grammar checkers (“The Software We Deserve”), from traditional grammatical bugaboos (“Sex and the Singular Verb”) to the ways we talk about illicit love (“Affairs of State”), Geoffrey Nunberg shows just how much the language we use from day to day reveals about who we are and who we want to be.

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780618116034
  • ISBN-10: 0618116036
  • Pages: 224
  • Publication Date: 10/15/2001
  • Carton Quantity: 24
About the Book
About the Author
Excerpts
Reviews
  • About the Book
    This engaging collection of National Public Radio broadcasts and magazine pieces by one of America’s best-known linguists covers the waterfront of contemporary culture by taking stock of its words and phrases. From our metaphors for the Internet (“Virtual Rialto”) to the perils of electronic grammar checkers (“The Software We Deserve”), from traditional grammatical bugaboos (“Sex and the Singular Verb”) to the ways we talk about illicit love (“Affairs of State”), Geoffrey Nunberg shows just how much the language we use from day to day reveals about who we are and who we want to be.

  • About the Author
  • Excerpts
    As a Cigarette Should {1997}

    The year was 1954. The top-rated TV show was I Love Lucy, sponsored by Philip Morris, and close behind was Your Hit Parade, sponsored by Lucky Strikes, whose ''Be Happy, Go Lucky'' jingle had won TV Guide's award for commercial of the year. And Otto Pritchard, a Pittsburgh carpenter with lung cancer, filed the first liability suit against a tobacco company.

    In that year R. J. Reynolds introduced the new brand Winston, which unlike other filter cigarettes stressed taste rather than health. Reynolds ran a singing commercial with the tagline ''Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.'' Like instead of as-as grammatical sins go it was pretty venial, but the purists went to the mattresses over it. One critic called it ''belligerent illiteracy''; another suggested that the writer who came up with the ad should be jailed. The Winston people were delighted with all the free publicity. They capitalized on the controversy in a new campaign that featured the slogan ''What do you want, good grammar or good taste?'' Soon after that Tareyton got in on the act with a campaign headed ''Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch,'' and the whole dance went round again over pronouns.

    It was a curious episode. It certainly wasn't the first time advertisers had stooped to using popular usage to make a point. Fifty years earlier, the sides of barns all over the country were plastered with endorsements for Red Man chewing tobacco by the great Philadelphia second baseman Nap Lajoie: ''Lajoie chews Red Man, ask him if he don't.'' But no critic ever deigned to notice this sort of thing until the 50s, that golden age of American paranoia, when Madison Avenue vied with Moscow as the insidious corruptor of American mores. That was when he martini-sipping ad man in the gray flannel suit became the new archetype of the American smoothie -the character played by Tony Randall in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and by Gig Young in just about everything else.

    Maybe that's why the grammarians' criticisms of the advertisements echoed with charges of class treason, the sense that the Winston copywriters were probably Yalies who knew perfectly well when to use as and when to use like. As Jacques Barzun put it, ''The language has less to fear from the crude vulgarism of the untaught than the blithe irresponsibility of the taught.''

    In retrospect, it's all pretty ironic. Those cigarette ads do indeed sound a little sinister to us now, and of course they came back to haunt the companies that produced them. But the worst thing critics could find to say about them at the time was not that they were selling cigarettes, but only that they were doing it ungrammatically.

    The advertisers are still playing fast and loose with the language, but it's unlikely that the Winston episode will ever repeat itself. In recent months, for example, the Toyota people have been running a campaign that stresses how well their products fit in with consumers' day-to-day needs. '' Toyota, everyday'' is the slogan. You'd think that by spelling everyday like that they'd worry about suggesting that their products are banal and ordinary. But the ad agency thought the one-word version looked zippier, and when they talked to consumer focus groups, it turned out that no one was particularly troubled by the misspelling: people said they were used to seeing mistakes in advertising, and besides, it made the company seem folksier.

    Indeed, folksy is all you see in advertising nowadays. You think of those in-flight infomercials where guys in jeans and Doc Martens are touting the latest cool stuff from Hewlett-Packard and Motorola. Not long ago, in fact, Microsoft went to the ad agency that had done all those Gen-X ads for Nike and asked for an ad series that would make them sound cool. It bothered some people, like the Los Angeles Times columnist Gary Chapman; he took to task all these multinationals who appropriate a style and language that originates with inner-city kids who will wind up being the losers in the information age. It was a perfect reversal of the attacks that critics leveled at the Winston people back in the 50s. The advertisers are still taxed for their linguistic condescension, but now their crime is the betrayal not of their own class but of the people whose language they're ripping off. Well, of course. Advertisers are no less shameless now than they were back in the days of the singing commercial. What's surprising is only that people can still get indignant about it. Shocked, shocked! to find that there is advertising going on.

  • Reviews
    "In a chatty, accessible style, he takes American catchwords and colloquialisms and turns them into signifiers of shared experience." Philadelphia City Paper

    "Most occasional pieces lose their freshness in hard covers, but Geoffrey Nunberg's commentaries on language…are a happy exception." Boston Globe

    "Nunberg offers homages and brickbats to the popular culture, especially as it is spoken and written." Kirkus Reviews

    "Never fails to reveal…history embedded in language…his acuity and fixation on funny pop-phenomena keep the book fresh." Publishers Weekly

    "Humorous commentaries about language in the United States." Library Journal

    "Nunberg . . . discusses usage and its abuses in brief, delightful essays." Minneapolis Star-Tribune

    [A] lighthearted but pithy analysis of the changing ways Americans talk and write." Columbus Dispatch

    "Contains [Nunberg's] ruminations on the strange twists and turns of English as spoken in America." Columbus Dispatch

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