Language barrier: Like, whatever you say, Ms. Balistreri


Maggie Balistreri is like, mad about the bowdlerization of American English. Think lunchroom put-down: “I hate to say she’s fat.” Translation: I have to say she’s fat. Or blame ritual: “I feel so guilty,” viz., I am guilty. Call them verbal tics, colloquialisms, “bu(llshi)t,” as Balistreri argues in The Evasion-English Dictionary, they have a singular purpose: “to duck the truth.” Reading EED can be a withering experience. You (that’s a “presumptuous you“) find yourself culpable every few pages. Take the ubiquitous and polysemous like: “That was by like, Beethoven” (“the undercutting like“); “I cried for like, three days” (“the betrayer like“). Often, the less conspicuous dodges are the most incriminating: “Young men are drawn to violence because Hollywood glorifies it.” Try replacing that “because” with so (“effect turns out to be cause”). But Balistreri’s not a complete hardass. She admits that evasion can be OK when it spares someone’s feelings, and her launch party won’t be a dry primer in unlearned grammar for the “Like, Whatever” Generation. The book itself originated in her spoken-word performances, as she sought to imitate the telling, and often comical, banalities of speech. Both lucid and useful, EED is also very funny. And scary. “I was looking out the window and saw a truck pass by,” she says. “I thought it advertised what it was carrying—but it was just a guy driving a sign around. I think the same thing has happened to language.”

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