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Outside the box and inside your head

'Slam Dunks and No-Brainers' and the language of pop

By Todd Leopold
CNN

cover.slamdunks.jpg

BOX OF POP

Do you speak pop? See if any of the following has ever worked its way into your speech (and if not, there's plenty more where that came from):

Bad hair day
Been there, done that
Comfort zone
Do the math
Don't get me started
Dumb down
End of story
Get a life
He/she's toast
I am the face of ____
I don't do _____
In its DNA
In your face
Issues (as in emotional problems)
It's a no-brainer
It's all good
Ka-ching!
The beauty part
Too much information
What part of ____ don't you understand?
Who's your daddy?
Yeah, right
You da man!
You rock!
Your worst nightmare

Source: "Slam Dunks and No-Brainers," Leslie Savan

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(CNN) -- Slam dunk. Don't go there. What were you thinking? Disconnect. Net-net. Yessssssss!

Sound familiar?

These are words and phrases that are on the cutting edge. Unless, of course, they're so five minutes ago.

As author Leslie Savan observes in her engaging "Slam Dunks and No-Brainers" (Knopf), these language chunks are a shorthand to showcase hipness, pop culture knowledge, shared identity and a desire to get to the point (or, as the phrase would have it, "cut to the chase").

They're more than slang, she says: They're "pop," the glib, snappy language that has pervaded our culture in the Information Age.

And they're everywhere nowadays, which is one reason Savan, the former advertising columnist for The Village Voice, wrote the book.

"I started to notice that certain phrases were appearing more often in ads ... [and] were also flying around in movies, sitcoms, reality shows, conversations I'd overhear and my own writing," she says in an interview.

"Regardless of their context, these words seemed to work as punch lines -- as if they came with built-in applause signs and laugh tracks," she says. "I started to think of these phrases as mini-ads: They could help sell cars, political arguments and, ultimately, ourselves."

Mass marketing

Slang and euphemisms are nothing new, of course. Shakespeare used them (he even made up countless now-common words, from "academe" to "too much of a good thing" to "zany") and so did strait-laced Victorians. Traditionally, it has bubbled up from the grass roots to the mainstream.

Today, in the era of mass communication, the roots of slang have expanded: ethnic -- particularly African-American -- argot, advertising, movies, television, music, sports, psychology, corporations, the Internet, along with the intermixing of any combination of the above (African-American slang through music, pop psychology through movies and TV).

But what separates pop from slang, Savan says, is the push it gets from marketing and media companies, until what was once a relatively private reference becomes a commonplace fashion -- even a cliché.

"Unlike the slang that may never get beyond the streets, office cubicles or middle schools where it originated, pop is totally mainstream and used by millions. ... It's this sense of a crowd speaking it that makes pop language so persuasive," she says.

Thanks to the media, such language also gets "a new glamour," she adds. "Whassup?", a query used by African-Americans, became ubiquitous in 2000 thanks to a Budweiser campaign that used the parodistic work of a black filmmaker, Charles Stone III. "Not!", which dates back at least a century, received a new lease on life with the "Saturday Night Live" skit "Wayne's World."

For that matter, using a phrase such as Dirty Harry's clenched "Make my day" (from 1983's "Sudden Impact") gives the speaker a ready-made buzz -- and yet ties him or her in with millions of listeners who have virtually no knowledge of the phrase's origins. Witness Ronald Reagan's use of "Make my day" in a 1985 tax standoff, which rendered a tough, barrel-of-a-gun threat from Clint Eastwood's detective into something ... different.

"That's one reason I call this stuff pop and not hip or, to use another overused pop phrase, cutting edge," Savan says. "Pop language is by definition mainstream and ... has very little edge. It's round, bouncy, and, despite its occasional bad-boy swagger, safe."

'It grabs you by the neck'

Savan
Leslie Savan

And yet, as the world gets faster, pop becomes more necessary to whoever's using it -- marketers, politicians, your boss -- to break through the clutter. It might oversimplify or dehumanize, but it gets to the point.

Savan learned that lesson many years ago, in her first job out of college -- working for the supermarket tabloid The Star.

"[The Star's style] runs counter to lots of my beliefs, but it taught me some valuable lessons: Be dogged and talk with a pop pulse," she says. "It grabs you by the neck. ... I really have to use pop [in the way I think] because if I do it in a blander way, I lose my audience."

Indeed, Savan notes that the emphasis offered by pop can be persuasive on many levels. Sitcoms use pop for easy laughs, though the laughs quickly become empty from repetition. Politics, in particular, values the pop zinger: President Bush's cousin, John Ellis, told The New Yorker that Al Gore could have tipped the 2000 campaign in his favor if he'd just told Bush during a debate, "What, exactly, is it about peace and prosperity that you don't like?"

But pop can also hide complexities in favor of the hard sell, the gut reaction, Savan adds. When then-CIA Director George Tenet and a deputy presented a variety of intelligence regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, his audience -- Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Chief of Staff Andrew Card -- was concerned it wouldn't convince the public. To which Tenet responded, famously, "It's a slam dunk case!"

So much of pop, in fact, comes back to selling. Advertising, observes Savan, "is much more about selling you a world or worldview, so you're more likely to buy." As advertising has become more pervasive, so has its insinuation into language, making products (and people) seem rebellious and mainstream at the same time: "We learn from each other and we learn from advertising," says Savan, "and it learns from us. So the gap between us narrows."

Which is not to say she's against pop, though she's been accused of that in some reviews. "This is how we all talk [now], and I want to look at it," she says. "When these words and phrases start out ... they can be creative acts of art, sheer poetry."

But, she adds, "It's useful to be aware of who's talking pop and why. When advertisers or politicians use shiny, pretested phrases, they're a little more likely to get the response from us they want; they're more able (to use another popism) to 'push our buttons.' "

After all, she says, pop finds its way everywhere -- especially into the mouths of babes.

"When my 7-year-old son talks pop ... I feel pretty ambivalent," she says. "I am simultaneously proud that he can use this language so vividly ... and at the same time, I'm concerned that his snappy comebacks, his tone and attitude are coming straight from [snarky TV shows].

"And yet when he speaks more from the heart or with a sense of wonder, he doesn't need pop," she says. "He can be just as funny and communicate just as well without it."

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