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Word Play with George Grant: TV talk

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WORLD Radio - Word Play with George Grant: TV talk

Cowabunga! A cornucopia of trivialities


Four children watch a television in Baltimore in 1953. Associated Press Photo, file

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, October 20th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. Up next: Commentator George Grant with this month’s Word Play. For October: TV words that have become part of our everyday speech.

GEORGE GRANT, COMMENTATOR: According to the media and technology critic of the last generation, Neil Postman, “We do not measure a culture by its output of undisguised trivialities but by what it claims as significant.” Despite its nearly ubiquitous presence in our culture over the last two generations, it is not likely that very many of us would attempt to argue that television is now, or ever has been, significant. It has rather been little more than a cornucopia of undisguised trivialities. “With television, we vault ourselves into a continuous, incoherent present… Television does not extend or amplify literate culture. It attacks it,” Postman asserted.

That is not to say that television has not shaped who we are, what we think, or even how we speak. The truth is our everyday vocabulary is now thoroughly peppered with words that originated on TV—though none of them are particularly eloquent or heady, they have nevertheless been engrafted into our common parlance.

SPAM is a canned processed meat product made by the food conglomerate Hormel. The name is thought to either be an acronym for “shoulder of pork and ham,” or a portmanteau for “spiced ham.” But as anyone who has an e-mail account knows, it has come to mean “unsolicited, often fraudulent, junk mail.” It gained that meaning from a 1970 comedy sketch on the Monty Python television show.

Cowabunga was first coined on the Howdy Doody show in the 1950s, and then popularized on the Sixties sitcom Gidget, long before it was picked up as a catch-phrase for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Today it is an expression of joyous amazement most often associated with beach and surf culture. Thanks to a 1994 episode of the animated TV show The Simpsons, the old Yiddish expression for apathetic indifference, meh, surged to popularity. It was eventually added to most dictionaries beginning in 2008. Binge-watching became the Collins Dictionary’s “2015 Word of the Year,” thanks to the sudden popularity of the Netflix streaming services where whole seasons of television programs could be consumed in a single, obsessive, marathon sitting. It was derived from the early 20th century expressions binge-eating and binge-drinking.

Groucho Marx once quipped, “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”

I’m George Grant.


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