I remember the moment I discovered I was guilty of the colloquial verbal tic. Even before the “like’s” and “totally’s” that would define my generation spread their way into my speech, it hit me that I’d sometimes get stuck on certain words. My specific revelation was that I had just used the word “awful” for the tenth time in a twenty minute conversation. Embarrassed, I took note. I expanded my study of preteen dialogue to find that my descriptors came in phases. Sometimes, I needed to start every sentence with the qualifier “I feel like,” other times it was “no offense, but.” Some months, everything was “awful,” others it all was just “grotesque.” (I was at that age, what can I say.)
The verbal tic remains persistent, even when stripped of its angst, and has stuck around to infect my adult conversation as well. I find myself repeating “that’s ridiculous” or tweeting “just a thought.” My boyfriend goes through catchphrases like “I will say this much” or “at the end of the day” the way P. Diddy (Puffy? Who is he nowadays?) goes through names. Is this slang? Are we channeling some cultural conversation? I’d argue that we aren’t. What keeps the verbal tic from becoming simply slang is how insidiously it creeps into our language. Slang is fun and appropriative, used deliberately to be part of the crowd. The verbal tic is unconscious, unsummoned, sneaking up from the dark recesses of the brain to be chastised moments after it escapes. It is a product of salience — the words are at the top of our minds, so we use them over and over and over.
In medical terms, a tic is an uncontrollable mental “itch” that a symptom-sufferer just has to scratch. I do not want to belittle the struggle faced by those with Tourette’s Syndrome or other neurological diagnoses by implying that cultural linguistics are by any means a similar problem. (For an eyeopening look at young people with Tourette’s Syndrome, I highly recommend the documentary I Have Tourette’s But Tourette’s Doesn’t Have Me.) I use the word tic because it comes the closest to describing the phenomenon I’m discussing, the curious way that words worm themselves into our brains and demand to be repeated, despite a proliferation of often more appropriate words we might uncover if we only took the time.
As a writer, I see signs of the “written tic” in my own work. When editing, I’ll realize I’ve used the same obscure verb twice in a paragraph, or repeated a particularly memorable metaphor without any intention. Reading as a writer has also helped me pick it up in others’ published writing. One novel specifically used the phrase “blossomed with pain” so many times that I almost threw the book across the room. (I’m not going to name names.)
Which brings me to the “cultural conversation.” These days, it’s online, and whether you are reading Buzzfeed or The New York Times, there are certain written tics that appear everywhere — one might even call them memes. In our social media world, I’d say the kind of meme I am referring to is anything from catchphrase (“song of the summer”) to tagline (“reunited and it feels SO good”) to nonsensical headline (“This Video of a Cat Playing Piano is Everything”). It stands out from the general click-bait zeitgeist (Take this Quiz to Find Out…) because it is so language specific. When I tag my newest Facebook photo with an old friend “reunited and it feels SO good” do I realize I am scratching a cultural itch? Is that the whole point? Maybe it is. Maybe it’s cool and YOLO and all that. Maybe it’s the same phenomenon that’s been around since “free love” or “the cat’s pajamas.” But fogey that I am (I’m twenty-six, guys, just so you know), the fact that everyone’s social media profile, every click-miner’s link, every headline of formerly reputable news sources is using the same damn language worries me.
And it should: our brains are literally changed by the language that we use. Studies have shown that being multilingual benefits the brain, which basically means that knowing and using more words, having a broader capacity for language, can help prevent cognitive decline. Even the vocabularies of those who speak only English have been shown to correlate with grey matter density in the brain. (For those of us who aren’t neurologists: grey matter is an important part of the central nervous system, controlling sensory perception, memory, speech, emotions, decision making, etc. The denser the stuff is, the better.) Basically, our linguistic experiences shape our literal brain-function.
Even scarier is the fact that in today’s world, the Internet has become a beast of its own. In the past, slang spread through art and story and personal interaction. It was about the counterculture, or creating culture, having a conversation with our fellow human beings. Now it seems like the same few silly websites are trying to simplify everything and call for as little intellectual interaction as possible. Now, we like lists, and easily digestible factoids, and simple, repeatable phrases that make us feel like we are dialed in to some virtual hive mind. And that is what it is: a hive mind, repeating the same tired tropes that have been fed to us by queen bee cultural memes.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (best known for The God Delusion) coined the term “meme” in 1976, in his book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins posited that evolution extended past genetics, to self-replicating ideas that spread through cultural contact. The term has since been appropriated and adapted to suit the needs of various anthropologists, but its association with genetic replication still stands. Here is a quote from a laymen’s definition of cultural meme that illustrates the possible danger of its prominence: “Although neither genes nor memes are independently self-aware, they ‘selfishly’ create behaviors or structures optimized for their own continued survival and prosperity, not necessarily that of the host.”
Hmm. So our brains are elastic, and expand through creative practices like the study of language or music. Cultural memes do not have our best intellectual interests in mind. Maybe the proliferation of “reunited and it feels so good,” “this insert noun is everything,” “sun’s out, guns out,” etc. is more harmful than we know. Maybe the cultural meme is spreading like The Strain across our laptops, getting ready to eat all of our executive brain functions, preparing for the moment when it takes over the world.
Yes, I realize this is probably not the case. But I’m still going to come out and say it: I think the “written tics” that spread across the web are dangerous to writers. The hashtag is helpful, but it isn’t everything. Our minds are molding around Upworthy headlines and top ten lists. I’ve been known to write click-bait myself (gotta pay the bills, after all), and so I understand why these headlines and hashtags happen: everybody wants to be trendy, everybody wants their fifteen minutes of viral fame (and also data mining and SEO, etc., but that is another essay entirely). Still, I hope you all will join me in starting a new trend that values creativity in headlines, the reintroduction of some old-fashioned vocabulary, and cleverness and thoughtfulness over following the latest social trend.
Shouldn’t we all have a wider responsibility to people browsing the web? After all, those “Which Harry Potter Character Are You?” asking high schoolers (I’m Hermione, by the way), will likely have to take the SAT. Every adult could someday use an enriched vocabulary to ward off Alzheimer’s with a crossword puzzle. Every word or headline engaging a generic, cultural fad could be another, more interesting word or headline that all but avid OED readers soon will have forgotten. Shakespeare invented over 1700 words and phrases. Could he have done so in an age when everything was described online in lists?
Right now, the big thing is to Facebook or Instagram a photo and simply title it “This” — a sentence that I think speaks for itself. How would you feel if I closed out my essay with just “this”?