terms of endearment (n.): what you say when you need to say nothing–but need it to have a positive connotation
(Dear, my love, could you please find my car keys, honey? Snookie wookums don’t you think you should put that knife down? It is awfully sharp, sweetie.)
I adore Pontypool! The 2009 film was adapted by Tony Burgess from Burgess’ novel Pontypool Changes Everything, the story of the spread of a linguistic disease that is transferred from person to person through infected words. The film is decidedly different–and better–than the source material–despite the fact that Burgess wrote both–in that it places the story firmly in “War of the Words” territory by centering the action around Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie)–a Howerd Stern/ Rush Limbaugh shock jockey–as the virus breaks out in the tiny Canadian town of Pontypool. There is a love interest, exchanges of witty banter, small town melodrama, and a pretty enjoyable character arc for our heroes…
However, we are here for the linguistic virus. Director Bruce McDonald stressed the victims of the virus detailed in the film were not zombies and called them “conversationalists”. He described the stages of the disease:
There are three stages to this virus. The first stage is you might begin to repeat a word. Something gets stuck. And usually it’s words that are terms of endearment like sweetheart or honey. The second stage is your language becomes scrambled and you can’t express yourself properly. The third stage you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.
At no point in the film is there a rich elaboration of what the virus is or how it works, but a careful observer will note that the virus developed with the English language and has made the jump to virulence by taking residence in words that have lost their meaning. In the film, infected words include “honey,” “sweetheart,” and “kiss,” but we could probably add “weird,” “amazing,” “awesome,” “literally,” “Have a nice day,” and many, many others–in fact I’ve made you a Lexicon in preparation for the coming conversationalist apocalypse.
Unlike most of the entries in the Lexicon thus far, terms of endearment need no elaborate philosophical underpinning to demonstrate their meaninglessness. My wife and I have had pet names for one another for over a decade now and while “Pooh” as in Winnie-the-Pooh used to make meaningful connections between my wife and the strangely orange bear of Christopher Robin’s Ashdown Forest. At this point it means nothing more or less than “the person who is my wife.” My wife has a similar name for me and I’m certain that it means no more to her than “the person who keeps drinking the last of the milk.” In fact, the only time that we use each other’s proper names is when we are having an argument. These words–I won’t tell you what mine is–have been hollowed out and trip so easily off the tongue that they require no thought and carry no meaning. They are placeholders with positive connotations.
Now, one could make the argument that English pronouns and demonstratives ought to be the first to go before “dearest,” “lover,” or “baby.” However, I would argue–as I have all along–that the dangerous meaningless words aren’t the ones that we know are indexical–meaningless without their context–but the ones that seem to mean while actually being derelict of meaning. So, next time you end a conversation with “bye-bye” or “open a conversation with “hello” or realize that you can’t think of what “sweetheart” or “baby-cakes” could possibly mean–be warned. Oh, and watch Pontypool…
Tomorrow: the weekly MAPH report.