The language virus is totally infectious

Robert Valentine Senior lecturer in Advertising and Mass Communications
Robert Valentine Senior lecturer in  Advertising and Mass Communications

Robert Valentine
Senior lecturer in
Advertising and Mass Communications

Slowly but surely, a language virus of the most virulent kind has worked its way east from the valleys of California, carried on the air by television and radio, until almost no one under 40 years of age is able to express any sentiment that is less than “total.”

I noticed it a few years ago when my semi-Californian niece expressed her approval of a contemporary music artist by saying, “I totally, totally love him.”

The concept of total love is not unknown to me, because I have read Shakespeare, seen “Love Story” and been married. But the prospect of total, total love is kind of intimidating.

I expected that the girl would either run off with the tattooed, hirsute musician, or hurl herself from a tall building in a fit of unrequited frenzy.

Instead, within a single week, she was so totally, totally in love with, of all people, Troy Aikman.

You’ll be pleased to know that she is now well, has graduated college and “totally loves her new job.”

But she is one of the lucky ones. I notice now that people in high public position, such as commentators, actors and standup comedians, have taken to expressing themselves with the dreaded, “totally.”

Just tune into CNN and see if anyone can say much of anything without being “totally sure” or “totally committed.”

In response to the question, “Do you expect your new film to be a hit?” one rocket science school dropout of an actor responded, “Totally.”

And that’s the problem. I still don’t know what the guy meant.

Does he expect the film to be a hit? Or does he expect it to be a “total” hit? Are there certain degrees of “hitness” of which I am unaware?

I asked a college student if she understood that there was a test Thursday.

“Totally,” she responded. She had total understanding of the question? Why couldn’t she just say, “Yes?”

“Total” is an absolute adjective, is it not? So there is no need to put it with other absolutes, like “dead.” Is there a point to saying, “He is totally dead?”

Are there degrees of dead, outside of hospital-based soap operas?

This tendency to equivocate everything has even spread to the National Public Radio whereon a well-known interviewer pointed out to her celebrity guest the extent to which he had become very famous.

She said, “So you became, like, totally a sort-of icon.”

Are you kidding me? In the first place, can anyone or anything be a “sort-of icon?” Isn’t iconism either a state of being or not?

If you can be “sort-of an icon,” how can that be a state of totality?

And what, by the way, is the word “like” doing? What is like a total sort-of icon?

For that matter, what is unlike it?

I suspect the Millennial Generation’s favorite word, “like,” is just put there to take up space in the place of the more appropriate, “duh.”

We might expect more of NPR, and we should expect more of each other.

Communication is something we need to do well and our words are the tools we have to use.

Good tools deserve respect and care.

Because if all the words, like “commitment” and “dead” and “credible” and “love” have to be modified with some form of “total,” it won’t be long before those words themselves have lost most, if not all, of their original meanings.

And, maybe because I am about to celebrate an anniversary, I am aware of the fact that, sometimes, the absence of an absolute makes the meaning stronger.

Somehow, I can’t hear myself saying, “Honey, I totally, totally love you,” without also hearing my wife say, “What in the world have you done now?”

Sometimes, “I love you” is enough; “we are committed” is sufficient; and “this is the truth” will do nicely, thank you.

Well, that’s my story, and I’m totally sticking to it. Completely. Really. Like, totally.


Column by Robert Valentine, Senior lecturer in Advertising and Mass Communications