Official Speak and conversational dumplings

At my college reunion this weekend, the topic of Official Speak came up. Jay gave us a sonorous version of the air gate cattle call: “For those of you with small children or special needs we do ask that you come forward at this time.” The phrases we do ask and at this time are unnatural. Why do we persist in using them? What is the hidden message they convey?

There’s something soothing about codified language. It may be stilted, but it’s familiar, and it tells you where you are. Churches know this.

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

The repetition is calming, mantra-like. The point is not so much to send an explicit message as to put your mind in the right state.

Please ensure your seatbelt is securely fastened and your seatback and tray table are in their full upright and locked position.

Just hearing those words calms me down. Everything is fine. The plane is landing and everything is fine.

This kind of thing reminds me of a related but more annoying phenomenon. What is the name for phrases like this?

  • Don’t go there!
  • It’s all good.
  • How great is that?
  • You had me at ____.
  • It is what it is.

Are they clichés? I don’t think so, but they’re close cousins of some kind. They must have a name, but I’m too lazy to read through the whole Language Log to discover it. Sometimes the phrases come from a popular TV show. Other times it’s hard to say, but suddenly we’re all saying “You go girl!”

I hear them all the time. Some people delight in them and make a point of pushing them together like greasy dumplings on a fork. They are the comfort food of conversation: high calorie and essentially empty. Altogether they form a kind of extended vocabulary to the language, a skin that billows and blisters and eventually boils away.

Can you think of some others? And help me give them a name.

5 thoughts on “Official Speak and conversational dumplings”

  1. Great article, Ned, this a game-changer, from the get-go. Just connect the dots. Because at the end of the day, I don’t disagree. That being said, maybe we should just agree to disagree. That’s what I’m talking about!

  2. These are almost “speech macros”, commonly used patterns used in place of thinking. Orwell identified it as “duckspeak”:

    “Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all. This aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word duckspeak”

  3. You guys are the A-Team on steroids! I knew you’d be my ace in the hole to do a full-court press, because when all is said and done, I’m between a rock and a hard place.

  4. I would call phrases like “it is what it is” cliches. “Snowclone”, a related idea, is a relatively recent term, whereas languages have had cliches forever. To me, a cliche is an idiom which is over-used, to the point that its use is either rendered less meaningful or highlights its own unoriginality. Speaking of official-speak, my least favorite example is the use of the non-standard “persons” instead of the standard form “people” for the plural of person (e.g. “at this time, all persons are asked to…”). And Ned – your point about the “comfortingness” of official-speak, especially on airplanes, is a very good point which I’d not considered before.

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