October 10, 2018
FILLING IN THE EXPLETIVE
Some language analysts conclude that in ordinary talk the word real is “nearly meaningless.” It’s easy to agree when you hear people say, “It’s a real situation we have here” or “She’s a real winner.” What is lost if the word is removed?
In other contexts, however, real points the way to deep-seated cultural attitudes, some not pleasant to think about. A week ago my wife and I were having coffee with three women, all Colorado ranchers. One mentioned the discovery of a U-haul trailer full of stolen .22 and .380 handguns in a Walgreen parking lot in Midlothian, Illinois. She had lived in Midlothian. She said, “What were those guys doing with those piss-ant guns? If I had been there, I would have shown them what a real gun looks like.” She meant a Smith & Wesson 460 Magnum, or a .700 Nitro Express.
In this context, real means “better,” but better in a particular way: bigger, more powerful, more advanced technologically. The meaning is the same in the 2018 GMC Sierra commercial: “Imagine the feeling you’ll get from your first real truck.” And much the same meaning when people talk about a real computer, a real war, a real country (as opposed to a “shithole country”). So emerges our culture’s love with bigness, technology, and show, some of it needlessly destructive.
Linguists call words such as real “expletives” (from the Latin explere, to fill). The words are empty containers waiting to be loaded up, often with the emotional attitude of the speaker. “I can’t open this wretched thing,” wails Lady Trentham of her thermos in Gosford Park. But be alert to fillings beyond just the emotional. Shouldn’t Lady Trentham have owned a real thermos?