Midway through his memoir of religion in America from the fifties forward, Ken Woodward recalls that some time in the early seventies he noted a change in the dress and speech of grown-ups. The difference was simple: Adults had begun to act like adolescents.
My wife was working the local precincts [during the 1972 campaign], where I was surprised to find that most of the middle-aged women working with her were wearing blue jeans. Hard to believe now, but blue jeans had become the uniform of campus rebels and symbolic of youth in general only a few years earlier.
The jeans didn’t fit very well, Woodward comments, but that didn’t matter. These women supported Eugene McCarthy, and “they were determined to dress as young as the college kids who in 1968 had [gone] ‘clean for Gene.’”
They and other older people adopted a youth idiom, too.
Until the seventies, I never heard adults routinely use expressions like “wow” and “cool” as one-syllable substitutes for real conversation.
I imagine that nobody reading this needs to be convinced of the depleted lexicon of young and middle-aged Americans. Woodward’s explanation is that the seventies and beyond marked a shift in the meaning of youth. People wanted to stay young far beyond the traditional age, and “the young were taking longer to grow up.” More of them were going to college (which, though he doesn't say this, steadily has become an enclave in which adolescence may be perpetuated), and they waited longer to get married. It was great to be young in 1968, and they wanted it to last forever.
The problem certainly has become worse, with adolescent lingo now the norm for thirty- and forty-year-olds. Cool and awesome are the worst ones, catch-all terms for anything that is pleasing or blandly unusual. (There is no longer any awe in awesome.)
And so a few years back I proscribed these words in my son’s speech, plus a few more slacker terms. He wore standard kid clothes, but no cool, awesome, yeah, stuff, whatever, and—most of all—like. If he said awesome, I would say, “Give me five synonyms for awesome.” Wonderful, fantastic, marvelous, delightful, stupendous.
That didn’t stop him from telling his mates on the playground to run by me, strike a pose that only an 8-year-old boy can strike, and call out, “Hey, Jack’s dad . . . AWESOMMMMMMMME!” And I would scrunch up my face like the Chief in Get Smart and run after them while they laughed maniacally. But the point stuck—I hope.
My instruction to my son and to my students, who suffer the same juvenile poverty of expression, is: “Don’t talk like everybody else talks. Don’t flatten your individual experience with an idiom of colorless commonality. Make your locution as distinctive as you believe yourself to be.” And my advice to parents, more generally, is this: Do not reinforce youth culture among your kids. Show them something better and wiser, and never lapse into kidspeak. Some parents regard speaking their kids’ language as a form of intimacy. But impoverishing your expression is the wrong way to go about it.
Mark Bauerlein is Senior Editor of First Things.