Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Bow Speak

By Wayne Allen Brenner

MARCH 9, 1998:  You know what drives me up the wall?" I complained to my friend Sylvia over coffee at a downtown cafe a few weeks ago. "An anti-gravity car?" Sylvia has a sense of humor that even her truest friends will sometimes describe as "fucked." Or maybe she was just launching a pre-emptive strike against what she figured was an oncoming joke; she knows me that well.

"No, Sylvia, not an anti-gravity car," I said, letting her know just what a taste of martyrdom it was to talk to her right then.

She rolled her eyes. "Well, what then?"

"The way sorority girls talk," I said.

"Sorority girls?"

"Well, yeah. Sorority girls. Or bowheads, or whatever. You know... that chunk of the Austin female demographic that hangs at The Cadeau and drives some fancy car that Daddy bought them, and their major at UT is Cute But Effective Conformity?"

"Oh," said Sylvia, smiling into her latte. "I get it. This is about some vague stereotype you've bought into as a way to make yourself feel superior, is that it?"

"Goddamnit, Syl," I said. "Stereotypes have to come from somewhere, don't they? Listen - I see women like this all the time: at work, on the town, everywhere. With their fussy little hairdos and too much makeup, and they're all halfway to anorexia, I swear. I mean, if the shoe fits, you know?"

"Okay," said Sylvia. "Let's assume, just for the sake of argument, that there's some truth to this denigrating category you're proposing. What is it about the way they talk that drives you, as you say, up the wall?"

"Thank you so much. You honor me with your graciousness."

"C'mon, pal," said Sylvia, making a hurry-up motion with her left hand while raising the steaming latte with her right. "Out with it."

"Well, it's the dialogue tags, mostly."



illustration by Tom King

"The dialogue tags?"

"Yeah, you know." I sipped my espresso. "The 'he-saids' and 'she-saids,' the way people normally indicate when they're quoting someone."

"The way writers do it, you mean."

"Yeah, okay," I said. "Writers. But regular people, too. In regular conversation."

"Okay," said Sylvia. "Let's assume that's true."

"Right," I said, nodding. "But sorority girls, Christ, they can't use a simple 'she-said.' It's like it's beyond their ken or something. They're always saying 'She goes' or 'He goes.' Fucking goes, can you believe it? I mean, goddamn! People don't go, do they? People say!"

Sylvia grinned. "This gets you pretty worked up, doesn't it?"

"It galls me!"

I took a moment to calm myself down: another sip of espresso, a brief scrutiny of the dreadlocked giant arranging almond biscotti upon the main counter, a reflexive glance in the direction of passing cleavage. "Or," I continued, "you know what's worse?" Sylvia raised an eyebrow. "Do tell."

"A lot of the time they don't even say 'She goes.' They say 'She's like' or 'He's like,' as a way of introducing what somebody else said. I mean, what the hell?"

"And what's so wrong about that?" asked Sylvia.

"What's so wrong about it? I can't believe you're asking me that. What's wrong about it? It's so... so unnecessarily imprecise, for chrissakes."

"Well, I think you're wrong on this one," said Sylvia.

"Oh yeah? You do, huh?"

"Yeah," said Sylvia. "I do." She drained the last of her latte. "In the first place, when you're talking about the 'he-goes' and 'she-goes,' doesn't the speaker tend - at least - to accompany the quote with the physical attitude, maybe even the specific gestures, of the person she's quoting? She's not simply saying what the person said, is she? She's demonstrating how the person went."

"But..."

"And not only that," continued Sylvia, full speed ahead, "but when the speaker says 'He's like' or 'She's like,' it's an admission that the speaker may not be repeating the quotation exactly. You see what I mean? It's an acknowledgment of the inherent fallibility of memory. Which is, when you consider it, much more precise than saying 'He said.' Because, unless you've got a totally eidetic memory, there's little chance of the quotation being exactly what the person said, is there? You'd have to say something like 'He said - and I'm probably just paraphrasing, here.' And that's pretty unwieldy, don't you think?"

"But, goddamnit," I protested.

"But, goddamnit, what?"

"But that's already understood with the 'he-said' and 'she-said.' Of course you may be paraphrasing the speaker even if you say 'He said.' That's already understood, Syl. That tacit understanding - that implication - is one of the basic conventions of speech."

"Of written speech, maybe," said Sylvia. "And even there, are you telling me that you'd prefer something that merely implies, just because it's a convention? Instead of something that states what it means? And you'd prefer it because the alternative - the more precise alternative - threatens some lame status quo?"

"Dammit, Syl...."

"This, from someone who's supposedly so progressive? So damned nonconformist?"

"Okay, Sylvia," I said, surrendering. "I get the picture, okay? Point taken... okay?"

She shook her head. "I'm sorry, but I just couldn't let you get away with that." She brushed some cookie crumbs off the edge of the table. "You know my sister Beth?" she said. "My kid sister who I absolutely adore?"

"Yeah, I know Beth. What about her?"

"Well, she started college last year, right?" She paused. "And she's in a sorority."

"Ah," I said. "Aha."

"Yes," said Sylvia, smiling. "Exactly."

Or, okay, maybe I'm only paraphrasing, here.

Maybe Sylvia didn't say. Maybe she was like.

I don't know anymore, okay? You'll have to ask a sorority girl.


Wayne Alan Brenner recently took first place in 15 Minutes' "Funniest Sum Bitch Contest" and wrote, directed, and acted in the play Waiting on Godot.


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