Sunday, April 24, 2016
On a Wedding
Once upon a time, a small party of handsome young people gathered for a wedding celebration. The day was stormy and a sudden rainstorm lashed the chalet high in the mountains where the young people had lodged. The bride and groom opened the door of the chalet and a gust of rainy wind soaked them. Gripped with a sudden urgency, the group of young people hurried to their SUV parked under a dripping evergreen tree only a few feet from the chalet’s door. Everyone crowded together in SUV and the vehicle lurched forward, windshield wipers in full spate.
The road to the mountain heights was narrow and uncertain. At one point, the storm had dashed rocks down from the grim, black escarpments and the road was partially washed away. The SUV was powerful and skillfully driven by one of the young men and it surged forward, climbing the hill resolutely. In the vehicle, everyone was wet and the women looked anxious. One of the groomsmen was alarmed at the wash-out on the narrow mountain road and he put his hand on the upper arm of a bridesmaid. She brushed his hand away with an irritated gesture. Her mascara was running and she had streaks of greenish pigment beneath her eyes.
At last, the SUV reached a terrace on the stony mountain. The happy couple and their attendants dashed out of the vehicle to celebrate the wedding. The wind had knocked over some folding chairs on the ledge. The valley beneath the wedding party was wild with foaming torrents, wet cliffs draining downward into swirling clouds.
I am describing a television commercial. The SUV turns out to be a Land Rover. A sturdy vehicle of this sort is equal to any adventure that you might want to have.
About half-way through the commercial, we see the wet groomsmen and the soaked bridesmaid crowding together in the warm, moist interior of the SUV. One of the bridesmaid’s says: "Rain for a wedding, bad luck..." In the front seat, a man replies: "It’s not bad luck, actually."
The young man speaks those words almost apologetically but with grave confidence. It is not a deep voice but a comfortably high-pitched tenor – the voice of someone expensively educated who has either already made a lot of money in high-tech or will, certainly, make his fortune in that endeavor in the future.
The heart of the commercial is the word "actually" – this is the punctum, the moment of slightly unsettling discourse that establishes the ad in your imagination. The man’s response to the bridemaid’s despairing notion that rain at a wedding is bad luck is strangely grating, irritating, a shard that scrapes against your mind and induces a kind of mild pain that intrigues the viewer. I identify the irritating substance in the man’s comment as his usage of the word "actually", particularly his placement of the word at the end of the sentence. This use of "actually," in fact, is equivalent to the sudden rainstorm that batters the wedding party and complicates their pleasure on the barren ledge in the high mountains. Something induces our slight unease and makes us look more carefully at the images presented.
The word "actually" is an adverb. "Actually" describes something that is real or true. In this context, "really" or "in fact" might be synonyms for the word. (Beware false friends, the German cognate Aktuell or Actuelles means "current" or "topical"; this is similar to the use of cognates to "actual" in the Romance languages – in those tongues, words that look like "actual" mean that something is current or up-to-date.)
One aspect of my discomfort at the use of this word in the Land Rover advertisement is the speaker’s placement of "actually" at the end of a sentence. Is this correct? Apparently, others hear the placement of "actually" at the end of a sentence as discomfiting as well, but the general consensus is that the word can be used in that way without violating grammatical (or clarity) principles. Some sources suggest that the word should be set off from the adjacent and preceding phrase by a comma. For instance: "Is it correct to put a comma before "actually" when the word appears at the end of a sentence?" Answer: "A comma should be used, actually."
In fact (actually), my real unease with the use of "actually" in the Land Rover commercial relates to the tone of the word as a "discourse marker." Discourse markers are words that don’t add to the meaning of an utterance, but which clarify the tone in which a proposition is stated. Used at the end of a sentence, "actually" is a softener – it disguises a statement made to negate what someone else has said. "You accuse me of calling you an idiot. But I didn’t say that, actually." In fact, the confident speaker in the Land Rover commercial wants to say the exact opposite of what the disgruntled bridesmaid has asserted: Rain is bad luck at a wedding. But the speaker wants to contradict the bridesmaidwithout appearing to be disagreeable. Hence, the use of actually to disguise the element of disagreement between the speakers. There is an element of disguised malice, even passive aggression in this use of the word.
"Actually" was first used as a discourse marker for words like "verily" or "forsooth" in the 16th century. The word was not popular and scarcely known until the 20th century. A linguistic study shows that people who are between 70 and 92 rarely use the word – .4 usages in 1000 words spoke. However, young people use the term much more frequently and since 2008 application of the word "actually" to evince mild disagreement has become ubiquitous. People with ages between 18 and 39 use the word 1.5 times per thousand words spoken. People aged between 30 and 39 used the word even more frequently – that is, 2.24 times per thousand words.
An essay in New Republic effectively characterizes that aspect of the word "actually" that disturbs me. "Actually" has "an attitude", the writer maintains. The use of the word is "condescending" – the person who is explaining has assumed a mantle of infallibility about his disagreement with something previously asserted. The speaker in the Land Rover commercial seems casually dismissive of what the distraught bridesmaid has said. The man’s aura of confidence is characteristic of the vehicle itself – you can use this SUV to travel up this steep and dangerous road because the Land Rover is actually well-suited to these conditions. Have no fear, the young man maintains – there is no danger, actually.
Thus, it is apparent that the use of "actually" at the end of the sentence is intended to trigger certain responses. First, we can gather the young man’s age – he is probably between 30 and 39 based upon his selection of the word "actually". The wedding party involves sophisticated, wealthy young people, all of them superbly educated – there is a slight accent of the Ivy League in the man’s casually dismissive statement. And his deployment of the word "actually" at the end of the sentence suggests a kind of patronizing ease – although the mountain is rain-sodden and stirring with landslides, the Land Rover easily moves upward on the slimy trail. This kind of superior vehicle, like the superior young man speaking, can climb high, steep hills in the midst of flashflooding, actually.