*The other day I ran across an old Entertainment Weekly magazine that featured on its cover rapper/producer Kanye West. Next to the image of West’s ever scowling mug was the coverline, “Brash genius.”
West is a lot of things–ambitious, successful, arrogant.
That word used to be reserved for the likes of Albert Einstein, Madame Curie and Louis Armstrong, people whose sheer brilliance, in ways both subtle and far reaching, left an indelible mark on mankind and modern culture.
Self-proclaimed “Culture Solider” West is neither innovator nor pioneer. Nothing wrong with that; the world is filled with people influential within the scope of established ideas and concepts. However, West’s name followed by “genius” do both the word and the man a disservice.
But then, words such as genius–and innovator and legend and icon and diva, once definitive and airtight in their declaration–are applied gratuitously these days.
In a 21st century society where cultural standards have plunged lower than the bar at a limbo championship, the spoken word has taken a serious hit. Characteristically, there isn’t a weighty explanation for the void. We’re just lazy.
Alternately anxious and lackadaisical while stuck in a multitasking, texting, sexting, cellular, twittering-on-the-brink trance, we can’t be bothered to communicate in more than a barely functional miscellany of basic English and trendy catch phrases. We refuse to acquaint ourselves with inspired jargon to describe people, places, situations or emotions. We’ve neutered perfectly good words to accommodate whim.
Thus, something is proclaimed “amazing,” even if realistically it is merely “sufficient” or “remarkable.”
Back in the day, before the word was slowly emasculated, “amazing” was a term considered damn near Biblical. It was reserved for extremely proficient Russian family circus acts and other entities whose stupefying function or abilities left us speechless.
People, everything can’t be “amazing.” Some things are…”surprising.” Show “staggering” some love. Occasionally, nudge the sheer boundaries of your imagination and find another word. Please.
Meanwhile, “like” and “whatever” are used, like, ad nauseam–knowhatImsayin’?
The only utterance more annoying is the systematic “Does that make sense?” Answer: No. The value of whatever you said a couple of seconds earlier is debatable, but THIS line, rhetorical, cliched and gallingly self effacing, makes no sense at all.
Nor does our collective neglect of language. Relying on just a handful of words to describe everything from a spellbinding sunset and grandma’s scrumptious meatloaf to the exhilarating sex you had last night is akin to never venturing outside your neighborhood or eating the same meal day after day. Quite simply, there are other options.
Remember when the phrase “You know What?” was an actual question? Today, none of us pauses long enough for anyone to respond with “what?” That’s because the line is no longer a legitimate query.
The verbal version of licorice, gummy bears and Dots, “You know what” is now an empty, mindless expression without nutritional or distinctive value. It’s just something to issue before one says what’s on their mind, whether or not anyone actually asks to know. By the way, I love licorice and Dots.
Why should we explore new words? Well, because the dictionary is filled with some really great and useful ones, just sitting there for us to utilize. Because the world is wide and life is big. Because spoken communication, in its functional beauty and gentle, unyielding might, can be a wonderful thing.
And, because language, considered and clearly articulated, quietly commands respect. The distinction you seek for your existence via designer clothes, the brand you sip or what you drive can actually be found in your willingness to elaborate coherently. Indeed, speaking well has about it a funky, sexy eloquence.
Nevertheless, there exists a word overworked even more than those griped about here. It is a term whose infinite, seductive power to entice and incite has been exploited, used and abused since the beginning of man.
However, l-o-v-e is a subject for another time.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].