Word Watch – March 2006

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Every year, Lake Superior State University justifies its existence by issuing a Banished Words List – a list of “badly overused words and phrases” that, the people at LSSU suggest, should be retired from the language. Most of the time’, the list is a public service. But the 2005 list leads me to think that the idea of hunting out overused phrases may itself be a bit overused.

To my mind, an expression is “badly overused” when (A) it is used so often as to have become predictable; (B) its meaning, if any, has been fully absorbed by any audience it is likely to find; and (C) no suitable alternative expression exists. The offense is aggravated when (D) a common expression advertises itself as uncommonly witty. Examples follow.

A.. When you open a card from one of those hapless people who feel obligated to remember your birthday, chances are very small that the note hastily scribbled on the inside of the card will not say, “Have a good one!” When you attend a “visitation” at a “funeral home,” chances are even smaller that someone will not say, “Doesn’t he look natural?” If you’re like me, you say it yourself, just to get it over with.

B. There is no meaning that remains to be found and savored in “No harm, no fault!” There are no depths of undiscovered implication or poetic reference in “grinding poverty,” “family values,” “share your feelings,” “dissed,” “senseless crime,” “bottom line,” “close proximity,” “step up to the plate,” “greatest generation,” “revisit the decision,” “come to closure,” “ramp up,” “heads up,” “she’s all about herself,” “it’s the bomb,” “go for the gold,” “good to go,” or the perennially disgusting “bring it to ahead.” Enough! Forgive – and forget.

C. Nobody needs to say “senior citizens.” We already have “old people,” “the elderly,” “people over 65,” “retired people,” and many other choices. In this field, choices, like the poor, we have always with us.

D. Whoever first called New Orleans “the Big Easy” must have been just dying to say something witty, and succeeded about as well as the first little boy who exclaimed, “I’m a poet and don’t know it.” Nauseating? Yes. But the act of repeating such attempts at cuteness is a hundred times worse, especially when cuteness is allied with brow-wrinkling solemnity. “More and more Americans are wondering: Will the Big Easy ever be the same again?” Oh, maybe it won’t. I’d just like to know whether the proper name “New Orleans” will ever be the same again.

There’s nothing hard to understand about concepts A-D, but the experts at Lake Superior seem to be having a lot of trouble with them. Their new list of banished Words rightly abuses “an accident that didn’t have to happen,” which is a witticism that certainly doesn’t have to happen anymore. Try substituting the word “unnecessary,” and the post-traumatic stress will vanish. But a lot of the other candidates for oblivion are just expressions that the critics don’t like to hear – such as “970/0 fat
free,” which, as they inanely point out, means that the object in question still contains 30/0 fat; or “junk science,” a phrase that they claim is used by people who “practice junk politics.”

I believe there’s more than a little unadmitted politics in Lake Superior’s choice of offending words. But, “be that as it may,” its list is flawed in other respects, too. Several of the examples are phrases for which there isn’t an especially good alternative, phrases that can hardly be regarded as strained attempts at cleverness. You may not like the prevalence of talking points among our political class, but “talking points” is the only name we have for that unhappy entity. You may not like surrealism, but there is no other word for it than “surreal.” You may not like Lake Superior State University, but calling it Harvard College won’t do very much good.

The language critics at LSSU have forgotten what cliches really are, and they’ve forgotten that there are linguistic phenomena that are worse than cliches – such as some of the things that people do with them.

My friend Liam and I have gotten a lot of laughs out of a student activist who, trying to be clever and outraged at the same time, complained that some action taken by the authorities at the University of California was “the straw that broke on the camel’s back.” He was the camel, I guess; and the straw was … Well, who cares, at that point? & Isabel Paterson said, there are some people who can’t even write a cliche accurately.

Worse still are people who can’t understand what a cliche means. When Jesus used the words “suffer the little children” (Mark 10:14), he didn’t mean to provide a headline for every journalist who wants to discuss the lack of “health-care services” for “inner-city school kids.” And when John Newton wrote “Amazing Grace,” he had no idea that 20th-century sportswriters would use his phrase in headlines about what athletes do with a basketball. “Oddly enough,” he thought it was “all about” God.

But the most dispiriting thing about “overused words and phrases” is meeting people who have never even heard of the cliches – if that’s what you want to call them – by which America used to live: “Congress shall make no law,” “no entangling alliances,” “damn the torpedoes,” “mind your business,” “that government is best which governs least….” And those people are all around us.

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