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January 13, 2008

A Message To Those Who Create Their Own Words

Image Source: http://www.eidenmyr.com/images/misc/quizresults/wordsmith.jpg

Ok, follow me here: If someone is another's "girl" it used to mean that the "girl" was someone's girlfriend. But, if someone is another's "boy" (an English expression frequently repeated by other males), it apparently means something altogether different (and not a servant).

I freely admit that I know I'm getting old; I happen to know that many of us, English teachers included, hear certain trendy, new expressions that we . . .

. . . find confounding from time to time. Some of them are beyond being etymologically-challenged, they are simply embarrassing. Before I came into contact with "others of my kind" (losers who revere words) I used to think that perhaps I was the only one who felt this way - a pedantic-semantic loner, if you will. Since then, many of my colleagues have confided in me their disgust with the creative license that some have taken with the language in recent years.

Foolish? Maybe. Worthy of discussion? Certainly.

The clever use of wit and irony--something to be treasured and applauded--is one thing. But, some expressions just seem to be really undercooked as ideas. I know, I know, words are merely arbitrary sounds and symbols for concepts. But the senseless layer upon layer we continually add upon existing words (i.e., something that is "ridiculous" no longer means something that is worthy of ridicule, or, something that is "hot" can also be something that is "cool"?)...why not just invent altogether new ones? I realize his intended audience may have been different, but I think I may find it helpful to reintroduce George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" for young writers who don't yet know their reading/listening audience.

I only rant about this because Andrew Stern of Reuters reports on the phenomenon of word-play and new catchphrases, something he refers to as "wordsmithing," and today's generation in a piece he calls "Wordsmiths, Avoid these Words." An excerpt follows - Please feel free to comment here (below) if commenting on the Reuters site is closed.

A "surge" of overused words and phrases formed a "perfect storm" of "post-9/11" cliches in 2007, according to a U.S. university's annual list of words and phrases that deserve to be banned.

Choosing from among 2,000 submissions, the public relations department at Michigan's Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie targeted 19 affronts to the English language in its well-known jab at the worlds of media, sports, advertising and politics.

The contributors gave first prize to the phrase "a perfect storm," saying it was numbingly applied to virtually any notable coincidence.

"Webinar" made the list as a tiresome non-word combining Web and seminar that a contributor said "belongs in the same school of non-thought that brought us e-anything and i-anything."

Similarly, the list-makers complained about the absurd comparisons commonly phrased "x is the new y," as in "(age) 70 is the new 50" or "chocolate is the new sex." "Fallacy is the new truth," commented one contributor.

Some words and phrases sagged under the weight of overuse, contributors said, citing the application of "organic" to everything from computer software to dog food.

In the same vein, decorators offering to add "pop" with a touch of color need new words, the list-makers said.

Such phrases as "post 9/11" and "surge" have also outlived their usefulness, they said. Surge emerged in reference to adding U.S. troops in Iraq but has come to explain the expansion of anything.

Other contributors took umbrage at the phrase to "give back" as applied to charitable gestures, usually by celebrities.

"The notion has arisen that as one's life progresses, one accumulates a sort of deficit balance with society which must be neutralized by charitable works or financial outlays," one said.

"Back in the day" raised hackles for being applied to recent trends rather than historical events.

Other teenage linguistic indiscretions such as the often meaningless use of "random" and "sweet" raised the ire of list-makers, as did the pointless "it is what it is."

Reporters were chided for skipping out on detail by describing an event or parting as "emotional," and for misapplying "decimate" when they mean annihilate or destroy, not the word's true meaning of to lose a fraction.

Sports announcers were urged to drop "throw under the bus" when assigning blame to a player. "It is a call for the media to start issuing a thesaurus to everyone in front of a camera," a contributor said.

And finally, any self-respecting writer would groan at being labeled a "wordsmith" who engages in "wordsmithing," the list-makers said.

Read the full article by Reuters's Andrew Stern HERE.

I welcome your remarks to his report. There are, of course, certain points that I would like to emphasize as "ridiculous." However, as I learned upon moving to Pennsyltucky (see, I can wordsmith!), that one-time negative descriptor has apparently shifted meanings now.

As ever,


Posted by lhobbs at January 13, 2008 06:36 PM

Readers' Comments:


Yes, you are getting old - don't take yourself so seriously. All language has warts and pimples, but do you obsess over them when making love to your lover? Or do you learn to see beauty in imperfection? A webinar is a seminar conducted over the internet. So what? 70 IS the new 50 - you have a better way to say it? Anyone who can't understand that "giving back" is not about "debt" but rather "gratitude" is a pedantic fool. I could go on but I won't waste my time on such elitist garbage. If I remember correctly (I read his essay 20 years ago), Orwell was mainly targeting intellectuals who should know better, not popular usage. Or should I have said use? Dear God, I tremble before you.


Posted by: Dan at February 12, 2008 02:39 AM


LOL, thanks Dan for your remarks on Andrew Stern 's article and commentary on new words/phrases.

Perhaps academia should transform itself into a reformed space where the students instruct their own teachers how to speak, think, argue, and tolerate imperfection. I assume this would require an on-going education for instructors since the trendiness-factor changes from year to year (hopefully, the students will be able to keep up as they age).

And, of course, who needs elitist lexicographers anymore? Their suppressive, pompous work is obsolete as soon as it is printed--a cause no longer noble and a real threat to the status quo, political hegemony over language usage. I presume liberating services such as Wikipedia are the only democratic answer, where anyone can turn their opinion into fact at will. A language of, by, and for the people. Virtual power to the virtual people, right?

So, publishers of jargon dictionaries (also an outdated concept) and other word authorities beware. The pedantophobic people have spoken in their manifesto: they no longer feel you are on their side. You do not have their voice, understand their wit, or share their core concerns. Soon you too may be deemed "no longer needed" by the grass-roots, linguistic revolution!


Posted by: Lee Hobbs at February 12, 2008 01:00 PM

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