‘It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.’
—George Orwell, 1984
As an ESL teacher, an important part of my job is keeping a straight face when a student becomes unfortunately confused about the finer points of our language. Over the years, I’ve encountered classic examples of this, such as when I taught a class the expression to beat someone up. An innocent student then went to the administration and jokingly chirped about how she was going to beat them off. I had to delicately explain to her the difference between beating someone up and beating someone off.
So I recently girded myself for silent chuckling at what seemed to be a misunderstanding only to be horrified by corporate Newspeak. I was brainstorming a list of holiday-related expressions with my students. Our list had only gone as far as “Happy Holidays!” and “Merry Christmas!” when a caffeine-addicted student shouted out, “Let’s merry!” Ahh, the pitfalls of the English language, I thought to myself. I diagnosed it as merely a verb/adjective mix-up. It would be simple enough to correct.
“No,” I began, “‘merry’ is only an adjective. We have to use a verb after ‘Let’s.’ ‘Let’s be merry’ would be fine, though not really something we would say.”
“No!” my class cried out in unison. “‘Let’s merry’ is a common English expression!”
Then my students showed me this:
and I involuntarily taught them a slew of rare English expressions until I was hoarse. The class dutifully wrote down each one.
As a writer, reader, teacher, native English speaker—and frankly as a human being with a cerebral cortex—this nonchalant raping of grammar for no apparent reason boils the very marrow in my bones.
I would like to sit down for a cup of coffee with the advertising executive at Starbucks who came up with this. After dumping the coffee on his head, I’d just want to ask him: Why? Why did you omit the verb? It’s not a play on words. It’s not a pun. It’s not funny, witty, catchy or clever. It doesn’t evoke nostalgic holiday cheer or vogue slang. Even the obnoxious Microsoft Word paperclip is begging me not to write it.
Let’s merry. Is just. Bad grammar. For no reason. Whatsoever.
How stupid do you think we are, Starbucks? Are your customers drooling Neanderthals dragging a woman by her hair into a coffee shop? Do we line up at your dollar-green counters and grunt “Me want coffee!”? The whole shtick of Starbucks is supposed to be that we’re all a bunch of hip urbanites: the type of people padding down an ironic spiral staircase in a postmodern brick penthouse. We hop in a cab for a mile ride downtown while tweeting our angst for the environment. Then we sashay into Starbucks to tap on our iPad while cooing shipping orders into a blue-tooth. A floppy notepad displays our sketches we wield while wooing a client. We are the uncommoners sipping our venti lattes, designing and selling half a million units of cool in sleek little packages to the commoners.
So why, Starbucks, did you pick this holiday season to start peddling idiocy to us? Illiteracy is a serious problem affecting the lives of millions of poor, undereducated people in this country, and the economy itself. There’s nothing noble about contributing to that problem.
While I’m at it, train your cashiers to say something other than “Can I help who’s next?” This is terrible grammar and doesn’t make any sense. “Can I help? Who’s next?” would be a huge improvement. But really, what’s wrong with a pleasant “Next, please!” The sizes, “tall,” “grande” and “venti” aren’t doing anything to inspire the zeitgeist either. The English word “tall,” the Spanish word for “large” and the Italian word for “twenty” don’t mean anything together. English has three perfectly good words: “small,” “medium” and “large.”
In 1984, George Orwell described how the party of Big Brother would slowly whittle away at the language until nuance became impossible. This would leave the populace literally incapable of saying or even thinking anything critical of the ruling regime. Across society, words and their meanings are disappearing into a memory hole of vapid convenience. Facebook’s baby-faced billionaire is rubbing the verb “befriend” from the dictionary, as well as what it means to be someone’s friend, as he encourages us to “friend” everyone we’ve ever met. He then sells our every impulse to advertisers in lab coats training us, like mice, to press the lever again and again and again for consumer food pellets. Our politics are disappearing into soundbytes shorter than a handful of syllables. Popular discourse is flitting away into 140-character tweets texted from twits.
And Starbucks takes a phrasal noun, an adjective, a period, and calls it a day. This is reason enough to walk past Starbucks and say “Next please!” when searching for a coffee.
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.