E-mailbox clogging net stories are circulating in greater and greater numbers, but where do they come from? Is there some cyber-spot where they mate, like squids in the Sargasso Sea? Is there a burying ground where they go to die? Yadda-Yadda-Yadda is a speculative piece that came about because a) Paracelsus received yet another net story in the mail and b) he should have been working on something else.
A funny net.story appeared in my emailbox the other day, as these things so often do. They breed in the nutrient-rich waters of the net and wash up onto our hard drives, almost always without attribution and tagged with the scars of a life on the net: “thought you’d enjoy this,” “here’s a good one,” blah-blah-blah, you get the idea. As luck would have it, this particular story was pretty amusing; it was about dropping vowels onto Bosnia as part of the US relief effort. With a few vowels, the story goes, they would finally be able to pronounce those tongue-twisting city names. If you haven’t seen this story yet, trust me, you will. But there, I’ve already ruined the joke for you anyway.
Anyway, this story reminded me that I had been puzzling over the surprisingly valuable phrase “blah-blah-blah.” Blah-blah-blah is a homely but hardworking conversational placeholder, meaning, essentially, something was said here, but what was said is not relevant to the story, or perhaps that what was said was so boring that it does not bear repeating. (I note in passing that I have uncovered a disturbing trend of late from the venerable blah-blah-blah toward the snazzier, more 90s phrase “yadda-yadda-yadda.” Such is human perversity. Where does yadda-yadda-yadda come from? Can anybody tell me?)
If you’ve never stopped to consider it before, it can come as a mild surprise to consider that little mindless exclamations and insertions like oops, ouch, blah-blah-blah, and even umm, ahh, and atchoo! are all learned phrases. We wouldn’t say them if we hadn’t been taught them. If you visit Japan and speak no Japanese at all, you can still enjoy hearing the rhythm of Japanese speech by listening for their two no-op placeholder words ano and eto. Why would they invent words that mean nothing at all, words that serve only to moderate the flow of words, like um and ah do for us? Aha! That is to say, hmmm, very interesting. From observations like this, introspection proceeds.
I was discussing this with a friend of mine who grew up in Mexico, and I asked him what the placeholder words are in Mexico. Do people say bla-bla, or do they use some other phrase? You can imagine my shock and surprise at hearing that there are NO SUCH WORDS in Mexico. Could this be? Is one friend too small a sample from which to leap to any sweeping conclusions about an entire culture? Well, probably, but my mind was racing too fast to be troubled with details.
What, I pressed my friend, could they be saying in Oaxaca and Monterrey when they come to that part of a story where blah-blah-blah proves so useful in places like Tuscaloosa, Walla-Walla, and yadda-yadda-yadda? You know, wherever. He replied that in Mexico they act things out more in conversation; they’re more specific in general.
I once saw a lecture given by Dr. Lotfi Zadeh, the father of fuzzy logic, where he made the point that all specificity requires effort. Humans typically tend to reduce effort by introducing fuzziness into their speech. In other words, blah-blah-blah is a labor-saving device. Suddenly several things become clear: blah-blah-blah, much like the cotton gin and the rotary nose-hair clipper, is the kind of time-saving device that builds economies. It represents powerful, productive, mass-produced industrial language, the kind of language that gets
things done. Maybe we could provide Mexico with an economic boost by exporting placeholder words.
Is the cross-border trade in placeholder words covered by NAFTA? We know that the French, when confronted with words like aeroplane and computer, closeted a special committee from the Academie Francaise until they came up with the suitably French-sounding (though wholly invented) words avion and ordinateur, respectively. If purist francophones were to uncover a rise in phrases like “le yadda-yadda” and “le blah-blah-blah”, one can only guess what throaty Gallic phrases they would invent to replace them. But certainly Mexico can see the economic value of a good conversational placeholder word.
On the other hand, maybe not. They might choose to eschew the virtuous blah-blah-blah on the grounds that it represents just one more encroachment, like Walmart and Pizza Hut, of the overbearing cultural presence north of the border. After all, they have a saying there that goes like this: Pity poor Mexico; so far from God, so close to the United States. Yadda-yadda-yadda. Something like that.