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Um on Fresh Air

Geoff Nunberg talked about “um” — and mentioned my book, Um… — on Fresh Air yesterday; the text of his piece is here.

He invents a term that I particular like: the “umological paradox,” which is that why is a word that’s communicatively so useful routinely so criticized and battered? I think I provided the answer in the book: a changing technological and media landscape in the early 20th century, as well as new ideals about the presentation of self, more widespread opportunities to speak in public, and the commercializing of broadcast media changed how we judged others’ speaking and regulated our own. It’s true that some mention against “urs” (as by Oliver Wendell Holmes) appears earlier, but the prescription against “um” just wasn’t as widespread then as it is now. Now everybody thinks that umlessness is godliness — or, at least, the mark of eloquence (or a piece of it).

I know this shift occurred because for the book I looked through as many 18th and 19th books as I thought would contain such finger-shaking. They didn’t. That’s not to say that people were more lax then. They had plenty of rules about how language should be used, but it was mainly about dialect and pronunciation, not about making uninterrupted utterances.

Somebody once asked me, “How will Um… make me play poker?” Here’s one answer: if “um” can be used deliberately (as Geoff points out) as well as unintentionally, then the simple presence of “um” (or some other pause filler) isn’t as telling as you might like. Here a tell isn’t always a tell.