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Habla inglés con el Método Callan en Barcelona - Callan Method

Whatever Works

“Totes amazeballs.” Allow that phrase to roll around your mind for a few seconds, if you will. Does it impress you? Do you think this phrase stands as a glowingly mellifluous testament to the English language, the exalted language of Shakespeare, Milton and Dickens?

Chances are you don’t feel particularly inspired by the phrase. In fact, you may even feel as though your IQ has dipped by a few crucial points simply as a result of being introduced to it. For this, humble apologies.

“Totes amazeballs” – sorry – was either coined by publicity-hungry celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, or minted on the British reality TV show ‘The Only Way Is Essex’, a fly-on-the-wall documentary-cum-scripted ‘drama’ that followed the lives of several vacuous, intellectually sub-normal non-entities from the titular English county (Essex) as they went about their meretricious social lives, spewing mind-numbing inanities at one another. It means ‘totally amazing’. Yet even this more conventional meaning has a tautological ring to it. Something is either amazing, or it isn’t – there’s no gradation. It it comparable to saying something is ‘very unique’. A thing is either ‘unique’ or it isn’t. The adjective ‘unique’ does not need an intensifier to qualify its nature.

Yet new words and phrases like this – technically referred to as ‘neologisms’ – are creeping into English all the time. Take, for example, the word ‘selfie’. If you had asked someone a few years ago to give you a ‘selfie’, they would probably have slapped you and maybe even called the police. Nowadays, many (usually younger) English speakers know that a ‘selfie’ is a photo of oneself, taken by oneself. There was much controversy recently when a bunch of nude selfies were stolen (‘hacked’) from the phone of Hollywood actress Jennifer Lawrence (star of The Hunger Games franchise as the feisty Katniss Everdeen).

Some words swiftly become irritatingly ubiquitous – they seem to pop up everywhere all of a sudden. We have Miley Cyrus to blame for popularising the word ‘twerking’, which she and Robin Thicke did to cringeworthy effect at the MTV Video Music Awards last year. It means to dance in a sexually provocative manner.

Politicians are also guilty of overusing favourite phrases, especially those that sound good without actually saying anything of substance. Barack Obama is often quoted as saying ‘at the end of the day’, which means when everything has been done and considered, But what is actually being said here? There is no timetable to follow. It’s effectively vague. We are simply enjoined to believe that a deadine actually exists.

One of my favourite (but overused) words is the multi-purpose ‘whatever’. This word can be used in many different ways: to indicate indifference (“I hear she is unhappy with you!” “Whatever. I don’t care”); to communicate an easily pleased mindset (“Would you prefer tea or coffee?” “Whatever, I don’t mind”); to express annoyance at something someone says (“You need to study harder!” “Yeah, whatever”); and it can simply be used to indicate that someone can choose what they want (“Take whatever you like”).

Sometimes ‘whatever’ can mean an amalgam of different things. For example, if someone says “I hear he has been criticising you,” you could reply “Whatever – he’s an idiot.” This suggests a curious blend of not caring what “he” thinks yet being sufficiently angry to call him “an idiot”.

(On a personal note, my father used this word a lot when I was younger; so much so that he eventually got a tattoo of it on his arm. Perhaps it communicates mixed feelings towards the world in general? Whatever…)

The respected linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky once stated that “language encodes thought”. This means that unclear, imprecise language is suggestive of unfocused thinking, in the same way that an untidy desk betokens an untidy mind.

Next time we’ll be looking at the rest of the top ten most overused words in English at the moment. What do you think will make the list? Be prepared to be totes amazeba… (that’s enough!).

A. Porter.