(Mis)Figures of Speech


I know it is said that your enemies will tell you what your friends won’t. And so even though I think of you as my friends, I hope you’ll tell me to my face. I so rankle when I hear it in the speech of others, so if I am guilty please, risk injuring my hidebound ego. Rescue me by pointing it out at once. I’ll do the same for you. We’ll be doing each other a favor, truly.

The offense to which I refer and from which I try to steer clear is ORPs: the use of Obnoxious and Repetitive Phrases in one’s day to day speech. This comes to mind because all day long (I hate to admit it) I’ve been yelling at someone on a teaching DVD as if she could hear my hollering every time (and oh there have been so many times) she says “go ahead and…” as in “go ahead and open a new layer.”

In twenty minutes of narrative, she’ll use it 40 times, and she consistently has done so now across twenty hours of her otherwise pleasant and knowledgeable voice. I keep shouting to her “No, just tell us to OPEN a new layer. It won’t make you sound pushy if you do. We won’t think you rude or controlling. Just tell us what to do. Not to go ahead and do. That’s just saying the same thing twice. Can’t you hear yourself!” But she doesn’t listen. Or doesn’t care, I can’t say which.

I suppose some people can just tune out that sort of thing and get to the meat of what the speaker is saying. I cannot. In college (somewhere I still have the notebook) I couldn’t attend to the vertebrate zoology professor for all of his “uh’s” and “um’s”. Every one of them was a little road bump that made my mental needle skip, and I ended up off track.

I counted the skips with little hash marks–all around the edge of the page, until they spilled into the center where my notes should have been. We’re talking duhs by the hundreds! And that was the same prof, who, like my CD maven, didn’t want to seem too forceful or cock-sure, so he used the terms “pretty much” and “and that sort of a thing.”

Which reminds me: we had a neighbor, a man who perhaps had sworn the secret pledge of Devout Indecisiveness. He ended almost every sentence with “and so on and so forth and what-have-you-there.” I kid you not. This was an intelligent man capable of normal human vocabulary! But he was mired in this bog of habit and without help, he could not escape. I imagine he is there to this day, and **stuff and such and whathaveyouthere. (**An occasional variant.)

Some people mush their adjectives into a puree to make them easy to swallow: the woods are not dark, they are KINDA dark. The dog that bit them was KINDA mean. They KINDA make my flesh crawl! Ya know? Or “don’t ya know?” Crimminy! Don’t ask me if I know, turning declarative into interrogative. You might as well turn down that dark road to uptalk if you’re going to Ya Know me over and over again before you make your point. Assuming you don’t think that would be too threatening to actually just say it out and move on.

Sorry. I got on my high horse there for a minute. Didn’t mean to throw stones. I don’t doubt that I am blind to my own ORPs that make people cringe. Should you and I meet someday for a nice afternoon of conversation, you may find yourself making mental hashmarks, keeping score of my own obnoxious verbal habits.

But ’til then, tell us about ORPers you have known–a neighbor, classmate, family member or coworker. What meaningless space-filling sentence fluff and egregious wishywashies have you been exposed to? Wink Wink. Nudge Nudge. Know what I mean? Eh?

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. My mind isn’t caught by this stuff like yours is, but my best friend always tapers off a shaggy dog tale with some deprecatory thing like “blah, blah, blah.” Your poor brain! Not being able to focus on the zoology lecture! I will be driven crazy by “ya know” every phrase. My dim-wit stepson finishes off every proclamation with some inane, useless phrase, which I mercifully can’t think of now. My Pakistani friend has a ridiculous phrase, too, which I also can’t call up now. Other than those examples, I can’t think of anything else that has caught my ear.