Jul 152007

Charles and I have been enjoyably checking each other’s word choice for 20 years now. Lea and I have been doing it for 13.

I can’t tell you exactly how the minus five (-5) game started. Charles, Russ, and I started playing in high school, and I think it kept traction with us because it was a savvy and fun way to distance ourselves from what everyone else said.

It’s simple. If you utter a cliché, old or new, within earshot of someone also playing the game, you get smacked down with a “-5!” or “-5 for (cliché)!”, where (cliché) is whatever tired word or phrase you spewed. Salutations are largely exempted–a “how’s it going?” or a “take it easy” isn’t going to get you -5ed–but just about every other sort of conversation is subject to -5.

Originally, awards were as frequent as demerits. A clever phrase turn or a perfectly used 50-cent word would get you a “5 points for (cool thing to say)!” But anymore, it takes a substantial brilliancy to receive points. Mostly you just lose ’em, and that suits me fine. When it comes to speaking effectively and interestingly, I have found we are in far more need of negative reinforcement for mistakes than positive for good usage.

(Incidentally, as anal retentive as we all are in one way or another, nobody actually keeps track of point tallies.)

Constant vigilance is necessary. We are continuously assaulted with verbal banality, and it takes effort to prevent it from creeping into our vocabularies.

An exhaustive list of offenses is quite impossible. But pretty much anything you’ve ever heard that may have been clever once, but has been reduced to the verbal equivalent of baked chicken and vegetable medley, qualifies.

Dangerous -5 Territory

  • Just say you’re going to bed, and say good night. That’s safe–the former as a simple declarative statement, the latter as a salutation. Saying you’re going to “hit the hay,” “get some shuteye,” “get horizontal,” “get 40 winks,” “cut some Z’s,” or “go to beddy-bye” is a -5. Saying you’re going to turn in is iffy.
  • “Let’s get something to eat” is okay. “What tempts your palate?” -5. “Down the hatch” as you’re taking a bite? -5. “Whet your whistle?” -5. “That hit the spot”? -5. “Grab a bite” is iffy.
  • Just say it was a good trip. You did not “burn rubber,” nor did you “have the pedal to the metal.”
  • It rained. Maybe it rained a lot. It did not “rain cats and dogs,” nor was it a “gullywasher.” Before it happened, a storm was most certainly not “brewing.”
  • You were nervous. You were not “sweating bullets” or “on pins and needles,” nor did you feel like “a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”

You understand, I trust.

The -10
The -10 is rare, but possible. Current or relatively recent fashionable phrases driven to overuse are rich territory for such. “NOT!” as in Wayne’s World? -10. “Talk to the hand”? -10. An occasional longstanding triteness may make this list from time to time, as well. But generally, few -10s are inflicted.

I’m pleased that the -5 game has survived this long, and as robustly as we still play it, I have no reason to believe its demise imminent. An enjoyable pastime with which we can playfully zing one another while simultaneously training ourselves to be better communicators must be a good thing, yes?

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 Posted by at 10:43 pm

  4 Responses to “Conversational discipline, five points at a time”

  1. LOVE it! Now, of course, I’m scouring what I’ve said today to see if I’ve lost any points.

    (if something makes one laugh, does it count as a demerit? My best friend’s husband calls downpours “possum pounders.” It cracks me up every time…)

  2. That sounds regional, and that makes it a tough call. I left “frog-strangler” out of my rain list for the same reason, though I’m quite sure either Lea or Charles would -5 me for it.

  3. There is a gray area with certain things. “Frog strangler” would be a -5 for Bo. Partly because I’ve never heard him say it. If someone were to use “possum pounder” and it were unique to that person, he probably would get a pass. If you in turn tried to use it, you would be in danger of a -5 if someone around you knew that you were “copying” him.

    There are some that have to do with the smugness of delivery. Like referring to a walk-in business as “bricks and mortar”. People have used this more and more and they get a little gleam in their eye and the corner of their mouth turns up as if they thought of it. Never mind that most businesses these days have very little actual bricks and mortar if any. Also, the term “upstate New York”. You need to have a thick northern accent to pull this off. I live in North Alabama. We don’t call it “upstate Alabama”. There is a certain amount of, “Hey, I’m a cultural genius because I know regional terminology”. Keep in mind though, this is like an umpire who’s had just enough of a player or manager arguing. Some days fuses may be a bit longer than others. It’s a hell of a lot of fun to issue a -5, bring down a room, and let the lobbying begin.


  4. […] at Coconut’s when she was helping him build his music library, for example. (Pardon the -5, but Bill never meets a stranger.) An occasional friend from years gone by calls or visits. My […]

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