On Sunday, September 18, the Washington Post published an article on linguistics on the front of its Outlook section. The article was supposed to be about a tendency for phony nostalgia among Internet social media contributors but was really about the overuse of the expression “that time when…”
The author, Britt Peterson (identified only as a journalist in Washington) riffed on the word cited a “Northwestern University linguist” Gregory Ward (he’s actually a professor of linguistics at Northwestern–is it no longer important to be a professor?) explaining that “that” is a demonstrative “which often signals a common, shared knowledge or a reference between a speaker and a hearer….Using ‘that,’ Ward says, creates a sense of closeness.”
In the next paragraph, Peterson tells us when “that” is used on-line, it “refers to an experience not shared by the writer and the reader. In fact,” Britt continues, “the expression is often employed as a framing device for obscure, bizarre, or personally meaningful information that the reader would otherwise have no access to.”
To quote Jack Benny, “Well!”
When I was an arrogant teenager, my future wife’s mother referred to me as “that Bill Kent.” She was Australian and practiced a characteristically English reserve that indicates contempt but is too polite to describe it.
I was also called “that Bill Kent” when I was an arrogant contributor to some publications.
When my first novel was published, I did internet searches of my name, hoping that reviewers would say nice things about it. Most of them did.
I also found out that there is another Bill Kent, a reporter for a Seattle newspaper. I sent him an e-mail about how amusing it is that we’re writers had the same name. He never replied.
There’s a Bill Kent who drives racing cars, too. I didn’t write him because I didn’t know what to say. That I used to drive Saabs but I had to trade the cars in for a Subaru because it was hard to find parts?
I needed a name for a blog that I hoped wouldn’t become an embarrassment. I tried “ThatBillKent” as a name for this page. It was mine for the taking!
And now, here I am, dishing out “obscure, bizarre or personally meaningful information that the reader would otherwise have no access to” to a public that is over-served by such things.
To quote a famous journalist who occasionally hung out in Washington:
“And that’s the way it is.”