Colloquialism slams language


Cheney slams Obama. Jon slams Kate. Chavez slams Israel. Karzai slams NATO. Amazon slams Google. Sony slams Apple.

If we were to take this spate of recent headlines at face value, boy, what a barbarous culture we would look like — what with people slamming people slamming organizations slamming countries slamming people. It seems we’re stuck in an endless wrestling match, but the biggest loser won’t be one of us. It will surely be the English language, bruised and battered by the media’s lazy devotion to uninventive writing.

Case in point: the word “slam.”

It can be a vigorous and evocative verb when well used — “car slams into tree” packs quite a punch; “mother slams child,” even more so. In its colloquial sense as “criticize,” however, “slam” has been so overused as to strip it of any remaining freshness.

Aided by unimaginative writers, “slam” has crept into the copy of nearly every important national publication, from the Los Angeles Times to the normally irreproachable Daily Trojan, and by now has become the go-to verb for anything remotely meaning “criticize.”

Was there something wrong with “criticize” — or “lambaste,” “denounce,” “rebuke,” “reproach,” “scold,” “condemn,” “discredit” or “censure,” which are surely more meaningful alternatives? One rarely sees those words in headlines, especially now that “slam” is the new national obsession, even when it’s almost never the best word.

Cheney reproached Obama, he didn’t slam him — Jon bad-mouthed Kate, Chavez criticized Israel and Karzai condemned NATO.

Is “slam” more accessible than “lambaste” to the so-called average reader (a label, incidentally, which should insult us)? Maybe, but only because of the media’s systematic vulgarization of the English language, and our willingness to go along with it. It is the fault both of an unengaged media and an uncaring public that “slam” has replaced stronger, more robust verbs in our national discourse.

For goodness sake, even Google knows the phrase “Cheney slams Obama”: It completes it for you after you type “Cheney sla.”

And it isn’t as though “slam” is even a good replacement for “criticize,” a meaning the Oxford English Dictionary lists fifth and calls informal. So by using “slam,” we’re not only imbuing our language with more violence than it needs (read almost any story about the Los Angeles county Station fire and count the references to war and battle), but we’re also perpetuating colloquial, substandard English.

Enough already. This overuse and misuse of “slam” needs to end quickly, before we completely forget the better words it has come to replace. Of course, this is not to say that the word should be abandoned entirely. Doors should still slam shut in shocked faces and we should all still slam on the brakes before barreling slam-bang into some pesky deer or bicycling tourist on the road. Anything beyond that, though, and we should find a better verb.

Some might find this argument trivial and slam me for nitpicking over tiny details. Obviously, that would be missing the point, which is this: Language reflects those who speak it. The fairly recent proliferation of slipshod, imprecise English — of which “slam” is but one example, others being such meaningless phrases as “usher in,” “shore up,” “bone up on” and the persistent “irregardless” — reflects a slow but steady degeneration of mental acuity, which filters down from careless writers to the general public.

The media has a responsibility not only to seek the truth and report it, but also to enrich the national consciousness. Falling back on unoriginal verbal conveniences like “slam” does the exact opposite: It dumbs us down, muddies our mental waters and, taken to the extreme, makes us all unthinking conformists.

In 1984, the ever-prescient George Orwell satirized the degeneration of the English language as a shrinkage of thought. He called it “Newspeak,” a strictly regimented, utterly colorless language. Thankfully, we’re not there yet, and merely using “slam” ad nauseam, however maddening, will not empty English of its idiosyncratic beauties.

But Orwell got it precisely right: ruin language and you ruin thought. What seems trivial now might become the greatest tragedy of all.

Jason Kehe is a sophomore majoring in print journalism. His column, “Small Wonder,” runs every other Wednesday.