Leslie Savan has always been one of my favorite sniffer dogs, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. For many years, she used her Voice column on advertising culture to root out the subtext and hypocrisy of each shiny new marketing campaign, creating a context and language for us to critique them.
In Slam Dunks and No-Brainers, she turns her sensors to language itself—the catchphrases that percolate through the media and into our own mouths. She argues that Americans now speak with a “pop accent,” using these phrases as a form of instant communion and a social equalizer, “a sign that you, too, share the up-to-date American personality.” Fervently immersed in a sea of words, she occasionally loses herself (and us) in the slangtastic overdrive of wiggle room and happy campers. But for Savan, nothing in medialand comes without strings attached. She wants to know: What’s the trade-off for all this zingy communication?
Maybe it’s that pop language becomes “a force that drowns the truth in ‘a sea of irrelevance,’ ” numbing and distracting us with seemingly witty nonsense. Politicians project relevance and/or power by co-opting au fait expressions (“Saddam is toast,” Cheney allegedly told the Saudi ambassador before the invasion; “Bring it on,” Bush later crowed, talking about Iraqi insurgents). More generally, buzz phrases can substitute for real conversation or cleverness, though as Savan points out, “Verbal popguns don’t kill intelligent discussion; people do.”