two profiles with word Phrase printed on them facing each other

I used to have a part-time job providing captioning services for people who are hard of hearing and use one of those caption phones that let them read their conversations. It certainly provided me with insights about the state of the spoken language.

Some of the topics this job inspired included how people are speaking faster than ever before, which made conversations harder to follow (and caption!), and how telemarketing staff can improve sales to older folks by adapting their speech. The job certainly was an interesting perch to observe spoken language for a few hours each week.

Here are some other observations I picked up over a period of weeks in the year before the company closed shop in Arizona.

Phrases Can Come Back

Some phrases, like Joni Mitchell, can have popular comebacks.

I remember hearing “blah blah blah” quite a bit in the summer. Maybe people were tired and didn’t feel like talking. Between the heat, storms, floods, and wildfires, summer has become an ordeal for a lot of people.

Illustration of blah blah blah in the spoken language


I even heard the occasional “yadda yadda yadda,” an even bigger surprise because that one really got overworked in the 1990s.

At one point I started hearing a phrase I hadn’t heard since childhood: “okey-dokey.” And it wasn’t coming from the people for whom I captioned—it was from people speaking to them. Many sounded middle-aged or younger, and they were from all different backgrounds including a guy who sold farm equipment, schedulers in physician offices, hair stylists, and even tech support people.

I once worked with someone who broke up with a guy because she couldn’t stand that he said “okey-dokey.”

“Okey-dokey” is something I recall being said by adults to children and my first reaction upon hearing it was that it was from one of those well-meaning but annoying people who talk to older people as if they are children. But then the farm equipment guy used it after a discussion with a customer about the right kind of tubing to use for an irrigation project.  The two were clearly acquaintances–they commiserated over the mess known as the Colorado River Compact that was being re-negotiated at the time. I recall they also discussed parts for a second-hand tractor a friend was trying to sell.

The Urban Dictionary says “okey-dokey” first appeared around 1930. Another contributor said it’s a way to agree with something that’s pretty lame (like your boss reminding you about getting reports in on time), and yet another said it’s another way to tell someone to go fuck yourself.

Bless Their Hearts

This brings me to another phrase: “bless your heart.” I was made aware by a friend who grew up in Tennessee, in a town halfway between Memphis and Nashville, that this is the Southerners’ way of saying precisely the same thing as “okey-dokey.” It made me rethink a lot of people who I thought were my friends when I lived in the DC area.

The writer wearing a Yankees jersey

Bless my lil’ Yankee heart!

I heard “bless your heart” so often among Southerners that I assumed the phrase is intended for Yankees. But it’s all in the context of the conversation, as this Bless Your Heart 101 article from Southern Living explains. After reading it, I’m pretty sure that the empathetic version is only intended for fellow Southerners. Either that or they spend a lot of time on the phone with people they don’t like, bless their hearts.

Here are some other phrases Southern Living says are unique to the South but I declare,I heard many of these growing up in New Jersey. I won’t argue their origin, though, because that conversation won’t amount to a hill of beans and we can talk about it til the cows come home. Be sure to watch the accompanying video, too—it’s a hoot.

Sports Idioms Live On In Spoken Language

Sports idioms in the spoken language live on and it’s a crowded field out there.

All across the nation, people leave voice messages that they “just wanted to touch base,” a phrase I rarely hear spoken live to another person. Interestingly, I hear this most often in messages left by women, usually to men.

Men talk a lot about “Monday Morning quarterbacking” oddly enough, it seems, mid-week. I could be imagining it but I caption more men mid-week than on Mondays and Fridays. I hear this particular phrase in the rare political conversation and among people who got stuck in a bad weather situation. Farmers also use it: many have thrown their hands up in the air when it comes to the weather.

And those tests the doctor orders? They want the whole nine yards. But if you want to know how much a medication will cost, even a ballpark figure, forget it. They say they have to jump through too many hoops to get this.

Do you have a favorite or least favorite colloquialism, idiom, or clichè?