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Well, basically . . . .
© 2001 Stuart Vail

Excerpts read by Noah Adams on NPR’s All Things Considered 6-22-95

I am the Chairman of the National Committee to Stamp-out the Word “Basically.” What used to be a somewhat innocuous adverb has turned into one of the most predominant, albeit useless, words of the last decade. Emulating a fast-spreading cancer, it has infiltrated the speech of the majority of the English-speaking world. In an attempt to sound erudite, and “groping toward imagined elegance” (as William Strunk, Jr. wrote in the original Elements of Style), everyone from produce clerks to our leaders in Congress misuses and abuses the word. Its prevalence exceeds even the poor, worn-out “Well, ....” When asked a question, an employee of mine always used to begin her answer with, “Well, basically....” She could not function without that phrase. I once challenged her to eliminate both words from her vocabulary for five minutes. She couldn’t do it—she was reduced to a stuttering, quivering mess. To this day the word “basically” is outlawed in my office. If a courier, a water delivery man, or a photocopy machine technician happens to drag the word in from the outside, my crew emulates all sorts of alarms and sirens, putting the entire office in the “basically-alert” stage. The poor intruder hasn’t the foggiest idea of what hit him.

You must understand, I did not seek this Chairmanship (by the way, I refuse to use the silly term “Chairpersonship.” I am a man—deal with it!). I didn’t traverse the country campaigning for votes, kissing babies, and shaking thousands of outstretched hands. No, I was “to the manor, born,” if you will. But it wasn’t into a preeminent dynasty of English scholars which graced my birth. My parents were not tweeded, upper-class diction snobs who quoted Chaucer, Voltaire, and Kierkegaard, and scowled through their collective pince-nez at the solecisms, dangling participles, and verbal faux pas of the rank and file. Both had earned professional diplomas from the American Academy of Art in Chicago, and during my childhood worked as graphic artists for a variety of industries. When I was in fifth grade they decided to go back to college and earn “real” degrees, so from that point to the end of my high school education, one of my parents was in school while the other worked.

My father’s major was in Industrial Arts. After earning his Bachelor’s Degree, he taught junior-high school wood shop and later became Head of the Albuquerque High School Vocational department. It was while he was pursuing his Master’s Degree that an interviewer for the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard Apprentice School program in Bremerton, Washington (through Olympic College), offered him a job as an English teacher. He was hired because his Industrial Arts background gave him the ability to communicate with the apprentices in the language of their trades (44 in all), such as welding, pipe fitting, and carpentry. English was something his employers figured he could learn to teach, and learn he did! While in college I dreaded writing home because he graded my letters (diagramming the sentences) and sent them back. He became famous for a technique he used to break his students of various high crimes and misdemeanors in speaking the English language. Each student was required to deliver prepared speeches before the class, while my father sat at a desk in the back row. He had a handful of dried navy beans and an empty coffee can. For each utterance of “uh,” my father threw a bean into the can. A typical delivery might begin, “My speech today uh (clank!) uh (clank!) is about uh (clank!)....” I wonder if any of the students ever got to the end. I do know that a burly pipe fitter was once reduced to tears by this inhumane treatment. Years later, when former students would see my father in town, they would yell, “Hey look! It’s Professor Bean Can!”

As with Bill Gates, who was not born into money, my father created his own wealth in his lifetime, and by that I mean the richness of his personal relationship with the English language. He is Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. The point of this digression is to show how by my father’s influence I was led to this position of pinnacallity. It was preordained, inevitable. From my perch I look down upon the rabble of verbal misuse with my pince-nez perspective and have a field day tearing apart the speech of my underlings. An employee asked me, “Did we not get the new shipment today?” to which I replied, “Yes” (meaning, “Yes, we did not get the new shipment today”). He walked away with a puzzled look on his face, not knowing what he had asked or what had been answered. Which basically gets me back to the word “basically.”

When asked where he was from, a celebrity on a television talk show responded, “Well, basically I was born in Chicago.” A traffic reporter on the radio once said that the freeway was “jammed basically from the downtown area.” A local weather man announced that “tomorrow the weather will look worse than it will basically appear.” In a story on CBS News about the procedure for the (then) upcoming Clinton impeachment, it was said that “The Senate will start by basically taking attendance.” In her commentaries on budget cuts on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” a reporter used “basically” no less than six times. There was no reason for her to say the word even once. It was mere filler. It added nothing to what she was saying. I got to the point where I was not hearing the substance of what she was reporting, but only focusing on the next occurrence of that dastardly word. It became for me a form of Chinese water torture. [By the way, I wonder if the Chinese have a word for “basically.” I know Hispanics do. Listening to a Mexican radio station the other day I heard “... esta semana el Presidente basicamente hablaba con la gente ....”]

If we eliminated “Well,” “basically,” “uh,” “like,” “I mean,” and “you know” from the English language, half of the population would be rendered mute—quite an attractive proposition, I might add. And those who could still speak would have only half of their vocabulary left. But then, NPR and others would have to find more material to fill all that empty air space left in their programming.

 

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