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Pop goes our culture

Highbrows are wont to go ballistic when they see and hear clichs. But I'm here to tell you that cliches are "the real thing" - finger-lickin'-good-to-the-last-drop sound nibbles that add snap, crackle, and pop to our culture. But we're not in Kansas anymore.

Welcome to the brave new words of "pop-speak."

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In days of yore, most expressions arose from the hum and buzz of everyday life - "a tough row to hoe" from farming, "lower the boom" from sailing, "on the level" from drafting, and "I wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole" from rafting.

The poet Walt Whitman observed, "Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground."

Nowadays, our everyday expressions grow not from the rich soil of time, nor are they "close to the ground." Rather, what we speak and write and hear and read is manufactured through movies, radio, TV, advertising, sports, politics, and other mass entertainment.

It's no longer the workaday majority that cobbles, forges, and weaves clichs into the language; it's a tiny band of writers, producers, and marketers.

Since the advent of film and television, mass-media culture has replaced local, ethnic, and workaday culture, and Americans have become one great passive audience of couch and theater-seat potatoes.

Now we draw our words from Hollywood creations of light and darkness and color and sound that we had no part in making, and in which we do not participate.

It is to movies and mass entertainment that more of us are flocking and herding to find our hopes and our dreams, our views of reality.

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Just when you thought it was safe to go out in the language ("Jaws 2"), speaking and writing these days are often a mindless clacking of trendy expressions straight off the screen - show me the money ("Jerry Maguire"), this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship ("Casablanca"), and what we have here is a failure to communicate ("Cool Hand Luke").

Even our public figures are mixing these expressions into their orations. In 1984, Vice President Walter Mondale was engaged in a bitter Democratic presidential primary race against Colorado Sen. Gary Hart. Trying to discredit his rival's policies, Mr. Mondale repeatedly demanded, "Where's the beef?"

He just lifted it from a TV commercial for Wendy's hamburgers. Yet "Where's the beef?" became one of the most memorable political catchphrases of the 1980s.

What we have here is not just a failure to communicate. What we have here is an unrelenting mix of mimicry and gimmickry, vogue phrases that launch a thousand lips - phrases as short-lived as a mayfly. "What passes for culture in my head," observes Kurt Vonnegut, "is really a bunch of commercials."

Not that there's anything wrong with that ... ("Seinfeld").

Got clichs? Then maybe it's time to think outside the box.

And while you're at it, may the force be with you, yada yada yada.

*Richard Lederer is the author of 'Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay' (St. Martin's Press, 1999). He lives in San Diego.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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