Say It Like You Mean It

Say what you mean. We all know we should do it.

Do what you say. Just another way of saying “don’t lie” or “have integrity.”

But how about say it like you mean it? What does say it like you mean it mean?

It means that your words are your product, and as good as your product might be, you’ve gotta sell it with emotion. Don’t try to convince me your life is perfect while you’re weeping. And don’t smile while telling your roommate how pissed off you are that he ate you Kix. You gotta make ‘em match.

We non-assholes of the world have a tendency to maintain a level, inoffensive status quo. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, what we do and say to serve this instinct is often at odds with what we should do or say to serve our message. Sure, we can’t all scream every time we feel like screaming, but can’t we pack some emotion into our words when the situation merits it?

Have you ever backed off a sincere thought by saying just kidding, even though you were deadly serious? Or how many times have you heard some offensive, even deplorable act described as so not cool? So not cool?! What are we talking about here, a cheating spouse or a movie-theater texter? Some things are serious, and deserve some serious weight.

In recent weeks I have noticed several examples of how the way we choose to say things can undermine our message. Yeah, it's important to get the words right, but how we package them is just as important.

At the beginning of this football season, I heard an interview with Vanderbilt’s admirably optimistic new head coach. When asked about how the team’s transition from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense* went, he said it went pretty flawless.

OK coach, I know you have better things to do than stress about grammar, but pretty flawless? It was either flawless, or it wasn’t. To say it was flawless is to say that it was perfect; without fault; could not possibly have gone better. Is that what you mean to say? If it is- and this year’s record seems to suggest it’s not- then go ahead and say it was flawless, FULL STOP. There’s no need to temper it with pretty. If there were a few hiccups along the way, go ahead and say it went pretty well or great- but don’t sully flawless.

I heard a touching story on NPR about a California rancher who generously offered lodging and employment to an Egyptian man who had recently been freed after years of torture. She said she was pretty mortified when she heard his story.

Let’s assume for a minute that our rancher meant horrified and not mortified (which actually means extremely embarrassed). When you hear about beatings and waterboardings, you are right to be horrified. It says it all- no need to castrate the perfect word by putting pretty in front of it.  In short: Horrifed has balls. Pretty horrified has none.

There’s a reason our dictionaries are built more like Gravity’s Rainbow than The Great Gatsby: we need all these words. We sniffle, cry, weep, sob, and bawl. Yeah, we’ve got dirt, but we also have sand, silt, mud, clay, and gravel. It’s toasty now, but it’ll be sweltering later.

These words might connote different things, but it's their different levels of intensity that make them essential. That’s why you were crushed when your wife left you, crestfallen when you tried to score Taco Bell at 4:05am, but only disappointed when you didn’t get into Fresno State. Without these words, we’d have to point out our level of disappointment on a hospital-style pain chart.

Can we really fault the football coaches and ranchers of the world for these flubs? In one way, no- they’re not linguists. They’re not language “professionals.” I’m sure they’re masters of their own métiers- they know their Cover-2s from their man-to-mans and their Red Polls from their Red Angus. So who cares if the occasional phrase gets slaughtered along with a beeve?

On the other hand, we don’t all coach football. We don’t all raise cattle. But we do all use language, and we’re exposed to lay usage much more than we’re exposed to professional writing and speaking. Our common language is our common, and we each have a responsibility, however small, to care for it. Don’t like it? Don’t give a shit? That’s fine- but I don’t ever wanna hear a peep about irregardless out of you again.

It’s not just us schlubs who are to blame. I recently heard a professional journalist describing some act of inhumanity (Middle East again, natch). She characterized it as kinda brutal. Um, kinda brutal? To call an act brutal is as damning as it gets; when you’re talking rape or murder or torture, that’s the word you want. Putting pretty before it made her sound less like a war reporter and more like a histrionic sorority sister describing a bitchy comment about her shoes. Brutal would have said it loud and clear, had kinda not turned down the volume from the word go. It's not a matter of life or death, but she was describing that very thing. A professional should know better.

Maybe it’s our gravitation toward politeness- not a bad thing in and of itself- that keeps these tepid modifiers at the tip of our tongue. But they're there to help us, not to sabotage what we're trying to say. The dictionary is thick, and no matter what the situation, that perfect word that says exactly what you want to say is out there- so when you find it, say it like you mean it.

PH

*It very well may be vice-versa. This is not a football blog, and I just don't have the ten seconds necessary to research something so trivial.

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