Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Thou cut'st my tongue off with a golden axe

Every year someone up at Lake Superior State University releases a list of banished words and phrases.

The write-up of the list's history makes it clear that the list is "tongue-in-cheek" and it was all part of "a publicity ploy" for the little school up north. I have no problem with the fact that the PR department puts out the list. They're just as entitled to silly ideas about language as anyone.

Do I have problems with the list? Well the language won't be any better if people 'obey' the ban. And it doesn't really give any good advice to improve writing -- other than the typical 'avoid clichés' advice. And there are some words and phrases on the list that have lost some of the "pop" (banned) they once had. And there are plenty of words and phrases that I'm less likely to use because they just aren't my style. I might think they're trendy or cutesy such as "webinar" or maybe I just don't know how to use a phrase like "it is what it is" meaningfully. But sometimes words start to pop in other directions and some new and clever terms start to work without the trendy baggage. You should hear what people used to say about that awful word, movie.

So why do the LSSU PR folks think they need to stop new words from entering common use? "Webinar" isn't there yet but it might make it. I resisted blog for a while because it seemed too 'nickname-y'. But the word has lost some of its hip tone (to my ear) and now I hear it as a pretty direct and clearly defined word. I guess after several years I can say about the word blog "it is what it is." See! language changes and so do its users. Yay! And if web seminars become a common enough forum they might just take the obvious sobriquet. Scott Lassiter grumbles "Yet another non-word trying to worm its way into the English language due to the Internet." Listen Scott: they all start off as non-words. Even Internet.

The peevologists' arguments are mostly as weak and old as we would expect. And there are occasional hints at language rage too -- "Banish it before I go vigilante" says the feisty Ben Martin from Adelaide, South Australia about the changing meaning of "random". Some more this year's proscriptions:

  • PERFECT STORM – “Overused by the pundits on evening TV shows to mean just about any coincidence.” – Lynn Allen, Warren, Michigan.

The meaning as I have seen it used adds an important sense of the coincidence of several necessary factors to bring about a specific and rare result. It works quickly to a specific intention.


The technique is horrible. And I'd like to ban it from the sanctioned interrogation tactics. But what's wrong with the word? I just don't get this one. Do they simply want people to stop talking about the technique or do they want every speaker to have to go through a description of the repeated and sustained submersion of subjects instead of using the single well-known word?

  • WORDSMITH/WORDSMITHING – “I’ve never read anything created by a wordsmith - or via wordsmithing - that was pleasant to read.” – Emily Kissane, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Yeah! And all those damned silversmiths and goldsmiths and gunsmiths and locksmiths that always ruin their work too. If only we'd stopped the word!

  • AUTHOR/AUTHORED – “In one of former TV commentator Edwin Newman’s books, he wonders if it would be correct to say that someone ‘paintered’ a picture?” – Dorothy Betzweiser, Cincinnati, Ohio.

What's next? No one can pilot a plain or proctor an exam or police our use of language?

  • SURGE – “‘Surge’ has become a reference to a military build-up. Give me the old days, when it referenced storms and electrical power.” – Michael F. Raczko, Swanton, Ohio.

    “Do I even have to say it? I can’t be the first one to nominate it…put me in line. From Iraq to Wall Street to the weather forecast – ’surge’ really ought to recede.” – Mike Lara, Colorado.

    “This word came out in the context of increasing the number of troops in Iraq. Can be used to explain the expansion of many things (I have a surge in my waist) and it’s use will grow out of control…The new Chevy Surge, just experience the roominess!” – Eric McMillan, Mentor, Ohio.

I don't understand if these people are against the widening or the narrowing or just the phonetics of the word. All silly peeves.

  • BACK IN THE DAY – “Back in the day, we used ‘back-in-the-day’ to mean something really historical. Now you hear ridiculous statements such as ‘Back in the day, people used Blackberries without Blue Tooth.’” – Liz Jameson, Tallahassee, Florida.

Next year will feature the horrible misuse of "Oh yeah. That reminds me" when you mean to indicate that you just remembered something.

  • RANDOM – Popular with teenagers in many places.
    “Over-used and usually out of context, i.e. ‘You are so random!’ Really? Random is supposed to mean ‘by chance.’ So what I said was by chance, and not by choice?” – Gabriel Brandel, Farmington Hills, Michigan.

It's not "out of context" just because it's a context that you don't like. And do you also hate that odd was a numerical designation and it referred to a remainder but now it means 'strange' or 'weird'? And do you hate that 'weird' meant 'supernatural' or 'magical' and is it further frustrating that that adjective was the attributive use of the noun from OE wyrd meaning 'fate' or 'destiny'? You must hate this language.

  • SWEET – “Youth lingo overuse, similar to ‘awesome.’ I became sick of this one immediately.” – Gordon Johnson, Minneapolis, Minnesota

The list is a little late on this one. Waye Braver of Manistique, Michigan claims that this "became popular with the advent of the television show ‘South Park’" but I remember it was already huge by 1983 when I moved from Maryland to Michigan. I picked up the use and when I went back to visit some friends in MD and I used 'sweet' meaning 'cool' or 'awesome' they all laughed at me. But they were 5th graders and such intolerance made sense from their limited little minds.

And how about this? A snowclone made the list. ‘BLANK’ is the new ‘BLANK’ or ‘X’ is the new ‘Y’ has been banned.

[See the comments where Waye reminds me that he didn't say the show created the phrase -- just that it popularized it. There is some validity to this distinction and I have responded in a comment to the sense in which I see the distinction. He also provides the correct spelling of his name. LSSU dubs him "Wayne" but his name is Waye.]

(hat tip to DL at Sycamore Review)


  1. I believe many people hate "waterboarding" because they see it as an attempt to whitewash or conceal the act. It's a cutesy name which hides torture. It sounds like a sport. It's not so much the word, in other words, as the attitude and intention of those who coined it.

  2. I wondered about that contention. Patrick K. Egan of Sault Ste. Marie MI says in his comment (included with the list)

    “Let’s banish ‘waterboarding’ to the beach, where it belongs with boogie boards and surfboards.”

    It sounds like that could be the problem he has with it.

    But as I hear the term it doesn't sound at all cute to me. The fact that it sounds like a sport makes the word even more fittingly gruesome to my ear. It captures the detached and playfully arrogant mood of those who insist that their American interests give them carte blanche in their quest for answers.

    I say it has taken on an appropriately sinister tone.

  3. It's just that every time someone uses a word in a way that's unfamiliar with me, I have to decide whether a) they're just using it "incorrectly" or b) they've caught on to a new usage. It's mentally taxing.

    For example, the first time I heard someone say "random" the way the kids are saying it these days, I didn't understand -- which isn't to say it wasn't an effective usage (her peers understood perfectly well). But in most situations I don't get to say, "You just said 'random' and you meant 'goofy' -- was that a mistake or a new usage? And so I have to wait, sometimes many weeks, before I hear that usage again. Then I conclude that the original usage was not a mistake, but a harbinger.

    So don't be too hard on prescriptivists -- really all they (sometimes we) are is people who don't have the time to inquire every time we hear a "random" usage whether it was "incorrect" or prophetic... and who get frustrated easily.

    Maybe this is why a prophet is never recognized in his hometown or among his family -- they already know his language, so it's not prophetic.

    Anyway, I'm really inflated to get back to West Lafayette so that we can all hang out again.

  4. Richard Hershberger02 January, 2008 22:49

    I disagree about cutting LSSU slack for this list being "tongue in cheek". That is a classic bully's ploy. When the victim complains of the bullying, accuse him of lacking a sense of humor.

    Sure, it is a publicity ploy, but strictly in the "any publicity is good publicity" sense. What really comes through is know-nothing self-satisfaction. The list itself is arbitrary, and the justifications nonsensical. That this is considered good publicity tells us pretty much everything we need to know about the institution.

    Oh, and the complaint about "sweet" isn't even close to being the latest to the party. See "decimate".

  5. Well I don't think I've cut them too much slack. The main point I was making by noting their intention was that this isn't a policy or instructional guideline. And it's driven by the PR folks not the academics (tho I'm sure there must be several former English majors in the PR office.)

    I don't like that the list plays to the language bullies out there including several thousand high school English teachers who will mention this list positively in class and at least a dozen who will incorporate its claims into a quiz or some graded assignment.

    I know that decimate has been under the warped microscope for a long time -- but at least the list mentions that the grumblings have been going on "for years". (in an ADS-L posting Arnold Zwicky takes it at least as far back as 1870 to Richard Grant White's complaints).

    They've understated the age of the arguments but they grant that they're not introducing the peeve. With sweet they quote a claim that it became popular with South Park. *sigh*

    Inflated? Is that how you kids are talking these days?

    I recognize the concerns about the ambiguities that language change can cause. The same concerns were voiced by midland speakers hundreds of years ago about those crass Northumbrians who didn't know how to speak the better varieties of the Mercian dialect.

    But I don't find it taxing -- I find it constant source of curious innovation and stimulating inquiry.

    You of all people Casey know what a blessed thing a question is. When I hear a student pronounce a word strangely or use an odd term I love to stop and ask them to disambiguate the form. I write it down and ask the rest of the students to corroborate if possible.

    And I do this easily and eagerly and my students have not yet shown any offense because I've dedicated the classroom to the realistic and confident study of variation.

    C'mon. Isn't that more awesome than daunting?

  6. The belief that "decimate" means "destroy by one tenth" is the etymological fallacy at its finest. According to MW Dictionary of English Usage, it has never been used with this meaning.

    Thanks for this post, Wishydig.

  7. When I hear a "kid" say something like "That's so random!" I can almost always tell by the way they said it that the word has some meaning for them beyond the normal. Now, I don't always know if it means "cool" or "gross", but I can ask.

    What I don't think is that they don't know what "random" means... Unless, of course, they're saying something like "When you look at this plot, you can see the points line up in a completely random line."

  8. I did say that the word "sweet" in this nauseating context had become POPULAR as result of South Park but I never claimed it originated there. While I don't think that new words (or old, for that matter) should be completely banned from the language, thier overuse and misuse makes me want to scream. Oh yeah, LSSU got my name wrong, it's Waye Braver. Cool (not sweet) blog, by the way.

  9. Thanks Waye for your kind estimation and for giving a specified edge to your quote.

    South Park probably did propel the use of the word in a jocular sense. I'm not sure how often the word is said with a bit of a Cartman impression -- but it's probably a good percentage of the time.

    Considering how widely it was used already I'm not sure that it gained popularity from the show tho it did gain attention as a punchline and a referential tag. But in many circles 'sweet' was used more frequently than 'cool' or 'awesome' many years ago.

    I'd compare it to the use of yadda-yadda-yadda that was certainly well established before Seinfeld but which got attention when the show dedicated a subplot to the phrase. Seinfeld got the credit for popularizing an already widespread phrase.

    This is very different from the claims that Stephen Colbert created or popularized the word truthiness. Altho the word has been around for a long time no one was using it until Colbert started pushing it.

    And he changed the meaning slightly. Tho it used to mean the quality of being truthful he turned it into the quality of being almost true or similar to or close to the truth.

    But I'll again say that your claim that South Park popularized the word is defensible when we consider the popularization of a specific intention and how much more often fans of the show now say 'sweet' specifically as a Cartmanesque exclamation. Along with 'weak' 'superweak' and 'lame'.

    Now screw you guys. I'm going home.

  10. Re: Random

    I don't understand the difficulty with this. It seems to me to mean the same thing as "out of left field". Whatever you're saying is from a randomly selected direction.

    Re: Sweet

    I just can't get the commercial for Dude, Where's My Car out of my head when I hear this word.


Thanks for reaching out.

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