by Jean Foster Akin
From the mouth of a parenting expert being interviewed on a national television program: “Babies are sort of helpless, so new parents need to be vigilant in anticipating and supplying their children’s needs.”
Really? Babies are sort of helpless? Gee whiz, Captain Obvious, tell us more.
On a dog-related program, from the mouth of a television personality who makes more money in one show than you make in half a year: “You have to kind of brush the dog in order to keep up with her shedding in the summer.”
Kind of brush the dog? What does that even look like? It isn’t the actual brushing of the dog, apparently, so what could it possibly be?
Talking Heads of the media are full of this, and it’s hard to take: many of them supposedly went to college for journalism/communication, they’re getting paid to speak well, and, quite frankly, they should know better.
WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW SOMETHING FOR SURE
There are plenty of places you can use “kind of” and “sort of” and make sense at the same time. Say you want to express a lack of certainty: “We chose a blue for the bedroom that was kind of a mixture of blue, purple, and green. It’d hard to explain, but it’s very soothing.”
Or, perhaps you’re trying to describe an unusual flavor: “It’s tastes sort of like broccoli, but with green bean and spinach flavors too.”
You’re going to experience the other person’s tears or shouting, and it won’t be pleasant for either of you, so you hesitate a little before dropping the bomb, and you try to soften the blow with kind of/sort of. It won’t work, by the way, because any fool knows that what you’re really trying to say is: “I’ve grown tired of you, dear. I find you annoying and your incessant chatter mind-numbing. I want you to go away now so I can pursue that hottie over by the bar.”
Mother says (while running for the Band Aids): “Tommy, you’re a smart kid, but trying to ride your bike down the staircase was kind of dumb.” Notice here that Mother doesn’t want to call Tommy dumb, but she wants Tommy to see that he has done a dumb thing. Notice, too, how kind of/sort of in this case adds a soupcon of UNDERSTATEMENT (it’s actually extremely dumb to ride a bicycle down a flight of stairs, so soupcon is an understatement too).
When you want to be funny, using the words kind of/sort of can add that humorous understatement many of us enjoy.
Growing up in the city, my siblings and I enjoyed watching a fellow by the name of Tom Jones. That was not his real name; that was the name we gave him. Tom Jones was known all over the city for standing on busy street corners in tie-dyed t-shirts and bell-bottoms that looked like they’d been made on his Grandma Jones’s sewing machine, using her old kitchen curtains. On special occasions he wore a turquoise zoot suit that he must have gotten at Good Will, and bright green platform shoes. He’d hold an invisible microphone (I think it was also magic) and crooned loudly and off-key to passing vehicles and pedestrians. He really put his all into it, and we loved the guy–from a distance, of course.
One day, my brother and I were heading to a coffee shop uptown when we were forced to move over on the sidewalk. You see, Tom was adding some Saturday Night Fever moves to his performance that looked a tad dangerous to passers-by. When we got out of earshot, my brother looked at me in a deadpan way and said, “You know? I think that gentleman is kinda crazy.”
Understatement at its best, and the perfect job for kind of/sort of.