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. Continue reading