Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Kitschy and Archaic

I have recently had a few conversations with friends in which some rather hilarious phrases have come up. To name a few, "Oh, he's such a card," "You have me in stitches," or "you are incorrigible!" I wonder if there is a compendium of these out there somewhere, or more importantly, how these things escape our daily parlance to become mere linguistic dalliances. In general, phrases seem to come in ebbs and flows, as certain expressions come into popularity and others fade. Proust had a lot to say about this, commenting on society's ability to deem certain things acceptable that were once unpopular and vice versa. Marcel even took it so far as to say that these little phrases had the power to incite the ever-famous memory rush. What is so funny about this aspect of language, and indicative of Proust's talent, is the difficulty to express this quality. Yet, there is an inherently puzzling state associated with words like this that leaves one, for lack of better term, in stitches, when he hears them.
Another quality of this idea is its contagiousness. Our minds are designed to pick up certain phrases and unconsciously spread them into popularity and push others out of favor. The show Entourage joked on it, though probably unknowingly, with the discussion of Ari's "Niche" painting where even though nobody really knew how to pronounce the name, judgment was passed on the incorrect pronunciation. One of these phrases that I have noticed in the last couple of years has been: "Thrown under the bus." What does this mean? Obviously it suggests a discarding of sorts, but where in the hell did it come from, and why do people use it casually in conversation without any real ability to explain its origin? I think it was popularized during the Democratic primaries in 2008 and has stuck around. There is an incredible article on the subject here. I know it was published in 2008 and I am late to the party, but I really like the attention paid to the Big Lebowski. One of my favorite aspects of the movie, is El Duderino's mind's ability to restate the words of the people he meets in inappropriate contexts as if they were pieces of lint stuck to velcro i.e. "the parlance of our times."
Maybe I am just on a tangent here, but it seems that people can enjoy great pleasure out of being reminded of these little phrases long after they have gone out of fashion. One distinct instance of this idea presented itself to me when I was at a party a couple of years ago and I quoted "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" while dancing with a girl. I had just watched this, so of course I had to say, "Ya hear bells, baby?"

Well as I said that, somebody's mother was walking by and overheard it and started laughing uncontrollably. After feeling a bit embarrassed, I asked her what was wrong, and she enlightened me, saying that she hadn't thought about that scene, more particularly that phrase, in decades. Hearing it had overwhelmed her in an inexpressible way. I guess the lesson here is that Proustian rush hits when you least expect it, and that for some reason, our brains are wired to appreciate the kitschy and archaic in a way that escapes logic.

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