In Other Words — Personal Essay

In Other Words

My friend Penny is a human thesaurus. Last Friday, she called me during her lunch hour. She was eating yogurt at her desk while I asked about her weekend in the country. “In other words,” she began. Like a school kid whose name was announced, I abruptly stopped my thoughts and waited for Penny’s rephrasing. Then it dawned on me. She hadn’t said anything before “in other words.”

The more I thought about it, I realized why I was often breathless when I hung up with Penny on the phone. Her use of “in other words” kept me anticipating more as if I were glued to an ever-fluctuating, exchange-rate board. 

“In other words,” was Penny’s verbal tic — her security blanket, her conversational mantra.

Not that I could afford to talk. While whimpering on the tennis court only the other day, I heard my own voice take on the cadence of an old Jewish woman. Oy vay and nu were as constant as “net” and “you serve.” I began to listen up, tic-wise.


Now I’m all ears, trying to spot these pesky critters. They seem to stick to voice boxes like verbal Velcro. I’ve noticed that many have characteristics in common. Here are my top five categories:

Number one is the confessional tic, e.g., “If the truth be told.” Some varieties are: “To be perfectly honest,” “The truth of the matter is,” “If you must know the truth,” or simply, “truthfully,” “clearly,” “honestly,” and “frankly.” My standard response, now that I am VTA (Verbally Tic Aware), is, “Haven’t you been telling me the truth up to now?” 

The second category is the knowledge tic. Though it may be rooted in the speaker’s insecurity, this one has the opposite effect: it makes the listener feel like a dope. Examples abound: “You know what I mean?” “You have no idea,” or the simple repetition of the words, “you know.”

Then there is the Barnum and Bailey tic, the one that guarantees attention. This ranges from the ever-annoying “look” and “listen” to the challenging, “Can you believe?” The list goes on: “Can you imagine?” ... “Isn’t it amazing?”... “I have to tell you.” Normally, these are followed by such tidbits of critical information like, “my mother just called.”

Speaking of mothers, mine uses number four on my top-five list, the justification tic, or the incessant use of the word “just.” She thinks that “just” can soften any offense. When I mentioned that she had told me about the fight with her neighbor ten times, she said, “I’m just telling you what she said.” Actually, “just” is an all-purpose tic. My mother blurts it on anything from her messages on my voicemail (“It’s just me.”) to reporting the news (“She just committed murder.”).

Number five on my list is the commitment tic. Like the omnipresent, “let me,” or my husband’s, “Do me a favor.” He uses this one so often that I feel spent by just (my mother’s word) picking up his shoes and bringing him a glass of water.

Tied for number five is the religious tic. With language no barrier, this universal cathartic is best translated in English as “Oh my God.” More secular versions center on “my mother” not to be confused with popular obscenities featuring the words “God” or “mother.”


Why are so many of us stuck in the replay of a verbal message? Why do teenagers preface everything with the word “like” and then leave us with empty similes? Can it be the fault of inadequate reading habits, too much television viewing, cell phones, social media, computer tablets, and portable music devices ― just not enough time spent on old-fashioned communication skills?

Nu, go know the answer. I mean, just the other day, if the truth be told, I was talking to my teenage daughter. Like, you know, she was telling me about a test she had in school. “Oy vay,” I said, expecting the worst. Shit, before I said anything more, she said, “You don’t understand.” My God, I found myself apologizing until I realized she had said that phrase three times in her description of the test. Let me tell you, you have no idea how I felt. In other words....