Speaking your mind and other just causes

This is not the Olympics, so perhaps we should speak without having to qualify, Liz Breslin writes.

Some of us process the world through pictures, some of us through feelings. Others might navigate by sound or by language. I am definitely in the latter category, more likely to notice a stunning phrase than a well-made dress. An errant apostrophe upsets my sense of tidy life, a garden patch that needs weeding, not so much.

I think I am not alone among word lovers in suffering from linguistic rage on occasion. Sometimes it's four-letter words that get me. But not the ones you might guess.

Teaching English as a foreign language at the start of this century, I remember getting a boil on about "nice''. I don't know if it's the same in English-as a-first-language circles, but what is it with the proliferation of "nice'' as a descriptor?

Pleasant, kind, fine, tasty, but not, for another-four-letter-word's sake, nice.

See, I could remember other things from back then: it was colourful teaching hotpots of refugees, consuls' wives and jollying students, but it's the not-nice nice that sticks with me.

And right now there's another four-letter word that I'm getting round to demonising.

I say getting round, because when Ellen Petry Leanse did some very targeted (read: ridiculously small sample with results extrapolated to their furthest-possible-without-snapping conclusions) research on this word, I dismissed it out of hand as just another way to get women to feel self-conscious about their ways in the world of men.

Ellen got a guy and chick to make a speech and got the audience to notice how many times each one said "just'' and the chick said it six times and the guy only once and that apparently says something about how we apologise for ourselves as women.

But now I'm thinking that taking the "J-count'' down would be a good thing after all. Or it's worth a bit of thinking allowed at least.

"Just'' is what's called a qualifying word, which, as language teachers will tell you, means it sort of softens or arranges or places your statement. It's also a marginalising word, putting baby in a corner, belittling, showing ourselves afraid of our own light.

In my own research I have managed to find plenty of examples of males of the species using the word "just'' to good, bad and variable effect. But then that's the brilliance of blinkered searching. I can just google up a combo of words and get results. Just, simply, do it.

John Key, for example, goes from "just horsing around'' to having "just organised tax breaks'' to "just get the deal done and talk about the details afterwards''. And nobody's bagging him. Oh, wait, yes, we are, but not for his choice of language.

Richie McCaw is on record as saying "The first day I put the jersey on, I just didn't want to let it down.'' But he doesn't even have to speak. Just saying.

And lest you think it's just Kiwi-alpha-male-besties who are in with the just, get this from the late David Bowie: "I'm not a prophet or a stone-age man/Just a mortal with the potential of a superman.''

Now, while I am not suggesting that changing the way they speak would make the menfolk more manly (and clearly it is too late for Bowie anyway, though I would argue he transcended all of that in terms of both gender and general godliness), I do hope that even if you are a weed noticer rather than a word nerd, you will join with me in noting this: any one of those sentences could survive without the word "just'', and the more you notice that, the more the word "just'' just sort of hangs around and looks inefficient and in the way. Which would be true no matter whose mouth it came from.

Why, then, according to today's stats, is "just'' the 22nd most popular word on Twitter? And the 120th most frequently spoken word and the 129th most written word in the English language overall? Why, when time is short, and attention spans shorter, are we giving airspace to a piddling four-letter word that only serves to chew up characters?

I just can't work it out. It's like the proliferation of like, like, only, like, worse. Maybe, though, just maybe, the point of language, as of life, is not to be the most efficient and conscientious user possible. Maybe.

Just saying.


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