Monday, June 16, 2008

Intergenerational sociolinguistics at the supermarket this morning

The only way to get through the soda aisle was to push my cart between the shelf where a young man was stocking soda bottles and his pallet of bottles.
I waited until a point where I thought it would be the least interruption. "Excuse me," I said, as I pushed my cart through.
"How are you today?" he said without warmth.
Is that what people say now instead of 'excuse me'? I wondered. But I had to reply, "Fine. How are you today?" That's is the minimum response my imprinting considers polite. I found myself saying it as quickly as possible, and not being surprised--though I was still slightly disappointed--when he didn't follow up with the similar minimum 'Fine, thank you'.

I wondered how far 'How are you?' has devolved. Its words haven't yet reached the same artifact status as those in 'How do you do?', which I've often noticed trips up foreigners who understand English but haven't yet learned that it's just a polite phrase spoken at introductions. The only possible verbal response to 'How do you do?' is to repeat (with slightly different emphasis) 'How do you do?'

But 'How do you do?' must originally have meant something like 'How are you?'

At the checkout, I have two cloth bags. They must put the rest of my groceries in plastic. The young woman bagging the groceries asks, "Do you want your milk in a bag?"
"Yes," I reply. "Milk sometimes leaks."
She gives the slight grimace that baggers always give when I make that reply to that question.
I ask, "Did I lose my ecology points for that?"
She asks "What?"
I repeat the question and she smiles.
It occurs to me that using 'ecology' as an adjective in that way places me back in the '70's or '80's. Nowadays, people would use the adjective 'green' instead.

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