Colorful speech -- call it communication on a joy ride

Posted: Sunday, May 27, 2001

The most efficient way from Point A to Point B may be a straight line, but there is usually a far more interesting scenic route. This is true for many endeavors, not the least of which is communication. You can stick with the facts, or you can enjoy the alleys and side roads of a story with all its delicious details. You get to the same place, but have a nice photo album.

Some of my favorite phrases convey a general concept, but go on with some rich imagery. "Not enough room in here to swing a cat," for example. Or the gritty, "ricocheting around like a fart in a skillet." There are times when the image doesn't really help the message, like in temperature ratings. Colder than a certain witch's or well digger's body parts is confusing as is hotter or colder than Hell. Perhaps it depends on what part of the country you come from.

Why is colorful speech more appealing than a simple report? Well, we have been delivering the same two dozen or so statements for thousands of years. "I'm hungry" was quickly boring, so logically became "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse," then slid like a greased pig to the modern "I'm a starvin' Marvin." "Why did you do that?" became the popular "What in the Sam Hill where you thinking?" It's become habit. Now we have enough of some things to choke a horse or start a store, more of others than there are stars in the sky and certainly enough to cover all the bases. We are busier at times than a one-legged man in a kicking contest, so embarrassed we could just die and slower than molasses on a cold day. In some circles, a plain vanilla, unembroidered message is not understood at all anymore and clarification with some connecting imagery is needed. Movie scripts are a good example of this. Repetitious, unpleasant, yelled support phrases bolster all the messages that have any meaning.

Other than interest, a common job of colorful speech is to incite riot. Sometimes it seems impossible for a normal, at-rest person to deliver a neutral statement. We set the scene, provide some selected history, marble the facts with editorial, spice up the delivery and dig in for a good argument. When the bait is not taken, we are so disappointed we could hang ourselves. Married people are famous for this. Not the hanging, the lobbing of explosives. Some of the most colorful speech in marriage, however, is body language. I submit "the look."

Lots of people consider the use of obscenity colorful, and it is, but the nature of color is a full palette and we have so many words to choose from. The challenge to colorful speech is to keep it lively, full of imagery that contributes to the message and to use our vocabulary. Don't let good words go archaic! Wallow in the colloquial! Describe, describe! Can we go too far with dressing up our message? Sadly, yes. It's called poetry in some parts of the country and advertising in others.

I have been busted a time or two for joyriding with my speech and now I'm in a program. Here is my homework. "A man leaves Point A with only five adjectives in the trunk. Get him to Point B before we all die of old age." Don't help me; I have to do this.

Nita Nettleton can be reached at

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