Does anyone listen to how stupid they sound much of the time?

Can You Say: "Absurd"?
The lunacy began when I pulled up to order at a fast food joint.  I asked for a hamburger and a small root beer.  “I’m sorry sir, we don’t have ‘small,’” said the cute little voice.  I couldn’t see her, but she appeared in my imagination exactly as she would appear at the window a minute later: sixteen, pretty, athletic.  Bored.  Pony tail spilling awkwardly from a cut-away hat.  After a long moment I said: “Uh,” and she replied through the menu: “We have only medium, large, extra large, and super-size.”  How do you deal with language like that?

I had stopped there for a light lunch while doing a few errands around town.  I was in no particular hurry, but it didn’t occur to me to become menacing about the lunacy of the drink size conversation until the next event occurred.  At the hardware store I found the clerk and said: “Show me that ten-dollar paint you have advertised.”  The guy beamed as he headed past me to the correct aisle: “It’s nine ninety-nine through Tuesday.”  “Then what?” I asked.  “Back to eighteen bucks, I’d say,” he guessed, as if it might sort of ease its way back up in price.  “You must mean seventeen ninety-nine,” I ventured, recalling the ad – (“$8 off!”).  The clerk looked at me as if I were talking strangely, not he.

I bought the paint right then and there, on the off chance that it would creep up to $10 the next day, and I’d be out a whole cent for my procrastination.  (Of course, when my clerk rang it up with the tax, I had to shell out $10.49 in order to get it out of the store.)

As I left the hardware store I made up my mind to have some fun.  I went to the warehouse building supply store.  At home, recently, I’d knelt in front of some gray metal basement shelves I’d assembled from a kit, and when my knee rested briefly on the lowest shelf, next to the floor, the edge crinkled like aluminum foil.  I had reached underneath and pressed it back nearly to its original shape with my fingers.  Nevertheless, I needed some more shelf space, and this stuff was adequate.

So I found the building supply clerk and said I wanted to see their line of light duty shelving.  He pondered and concluded I must mean plastic or wire mesh.  I said no, metal, cross-braced, build-it-yourself.  He led me silently to a display of (of course) “heavy duty” shelving, exactly the kind that lets you re-shape it with your bare hands.

“Hmm,” I said, appearing to think it over in front of the clerk.  Indeed I was thinking: If this is heavy duty, then what would you call the shelving that would hold a few engine blocks and transmissions?  “Nothing lighter-duty than this, huh?” I quizzed him.  He looked at me blankly, but remembered that the customer is always right.  “Not unless you want plastic, but that’s probably sturdier than these metal ones here.”  I agreed to try the “heavy duty” product before me.

It’s too bad word didn’t somehow get around the retailing grapevine that some lunatic was out there, this day, challenging marketing double-speak.  If it had spread, my next victim might have challenged me in return somehow,  but on what logical grounds I can’t imagine.  I needed some gas in a can.

I pulled up to the pump at a truck stop.  (I needed a real gas jockey to abuse, so a self-serve place wouldn’t do.)  A guy again.  Phil, according to his shirt.  That was good.  If a girl had appeared I probably would have backed down.  I sat an empty red can on the ground and said: “Exactly one gallon, please.”  I watched with apparent distraction as Phil (What fun people must make of his name: “Phil ‘er up, Fill...  I mean: Fill ‘er up, Phil!”) carefully trickled gas into the can until the counter reached 1.0 GAL.

I followed him briskly inside to the register.  He rang up $1.25.  As I handed him a common dollar bill and a quarter, I politely pointed out that the price per gallon was $1.249.  “I don’t know how you’ll do it, but I want change back from my quarter.”  The guy frowned, and another man with a name on his shirt sidled up to him to get into the register.  The second guy was clearly the boss and had sized up the situation.  “Give him the penny,” he told Phil.  Phil did.  I looked at it as if to see whether it were just one tenth.  “Thanks!” I said as I dropped it into the penny cup beside the register, and left.

Beyond the truck stop, a furniture store’s window was covered with EVERYTHING MUST GO! signs.  I went over.  The lady who greeted me in the first dining room was positively regal in medium-high heels and a dress cut from a tapestry, mostly in black.  Her gait was stately as she navigated the close-set displays.  But one might call her pretty, in a Buckingham Palace sense.  Her name tag, beautifully done in calligraphy and then shellacked, read: “Chlöe.”
“I need to look at beds,” I heard myself say.  “Bedroom furniture or just the springs and mattresses?” Chlöe asked, as if disdainful of the latter, the essentials for sleep.  “Well, let’s talk furniture,” I suggested.  “King or queen?” Chlöe drilled.  She was no dummy, though.  She sensed that I was up to something.  I was going to make her drag it from me.  “Me?  I’m a commoner myself.”


“Yeah, more of a bed for a ‘Mister.’” I agreed.  “And a ‘Missus,’ if you know what I mean.  No frilly canopy though, like for royalty, things like that.  We’re strictly double-bed people.”

“You are Mister...?”

I wanted to blurt a contrived surname, like Doubtfire, but wasn’t quick enough, so I gave her my true name.

Chlöe must have been good at chess.  She verbally checked me readily as I feinted and dodged, trying to insult the nomenclature of bedroom furniture.  Finally I checked her: “The problem is, Chlöe, my wife doesn’t appreciate it that, when something is large, it’s called ‘queen-size.’  See, she’s sort of average-sized herself, but I’ve always called her ‘My Queen.’  So if we move up to a larger bed that’s called ‘queen-size’ bed, she’s not going to take it well.”  Chlöe was turning frosty as she began explaining about special-ordering a custom-made bed frame and mattress, so I bowed out before she called the cops.

I was really feeling testy now.  At a traffic light I sat staring at a Howard Johnson motel.  Naw.  I had tried that once before, years ago.  We were trying to sleep next to some particularly noisy neighbors in there one night, and I had called the front desk and insisted I be allowed to speak with Mister Johnson.  “There’s no Mister Johnson here, Sir,” the clerk had told me after a pause.  “Howard Johnson isn’t here?  Then who’s in charge?” I had demanded.  “I want someone in charge to quiet ‘em down in room 212!”

It’s not just that what we say and hear is often absurd.  What’s more absurd and harder to believe is that all we like sheep accept and adapt to the preposterous as if it has been conferred by some ultimate authority against which we have no influence.  It is, indeed, conferred by some self-appointed authority, but we *do have* influence.  We have the power to make that “authority” irrelevant.  The first culprit is the marketing profession.  These are people who can say with authority of experience that customers *will* accept products’ names and claims as truth.  If the box says Betty Crocker, there must be a Betty Crocker somewhere at the factory.  The second culprit is our government.  If an act of Congress is entitled the Clean Air Act, then its enactment will certainly assure us clean air.  The Campaign Finance Reform Act will certainly resolve all campaign finance problems.  There are other culprits, including, chiefly, those belonging to a profession that has the power to sue me if I identify them as a group, so I’ll name them: lawyers.  But over the first two, marketing and the government, we do have influence.  In order to exert any influence we need to first become aware that we are being herded and manipulated.  We must acknowledge that our language has been hijacked.

As I left Howard Johnson in my rearview mirror, I reflected on the skill with which some authors have ravaged the abuse of language in all the forms that the abuse assumes: S. I. Hiyakawa with
Choose the Right Word, Edwin Newman with Strictly Speaking, Joseph Heller with Catch-22, where he brilliantly captures the blind acceptance of official-speak, and of course George Orwell on double-speak...  What’s alarming is that we are exporting this madness as American culture.  No wonder the world worries whether we’re trustworthy.  We can’t put an honest price on something – ten dollars.  We tell each other it’s $9.99.  The rest of the world observes that we apparently believe the insult price – insult inasmuch as the seller insults me by pretending that it’s not $10.  It can’t be called deceptive.  It’s about as deceptive as dropping a ton of bricks on someone and then insisting that it wasn’t a whole ton, it was a brick shy of a ton, and by the way, when you add the pallet it was 2049 pounds.

I looked at my list of remaining stops and realized I was growing thirsty for another root beer.  I decided to see what the smallest one was called at Wendy’s.  If they, too, couldn’t be forthright, I’d ask to speak with Wendy herself.  Then I could I drive around to finish my list before returning home to a princess-sized wife who would wonder why a simple Saturday errand run would take me so long and put me into such a bizarre mood.