Each November, the New Oxford American Dictionary celebrates one new word that’s garnered serious cultural currency in the past year. In 2008, it was “hypermiling,” or to maximize gas mileage through extreme driving practices. This year, “unfriend”—deleting a friend on a social networking site—got the neologistic nod.
Every year new words are welcomed with pomp and joy. They are guests of honor at the seemingly never-ending party that is American English. Of course, there are always traditionalists—those gloomy language apocalypse preachers; David Foster Wallace called them SNOOTs—who scowl at our promiscuousness and attempt to beat back the progress of a language they see as rightfully theirs.
Screw them…for the most part.
There are times, however, for a little crusty prescriptive conservatism, if only to ensure that we’re paying attention to this glorious set of words we’ve decided to use. “Language police” isn’t the term for what we need—too brutal and official.
Language vigilantism, on the other hand, might be closer—a chorus of free-floating individuals taking judicious swipes at words and phrases whose time has come…and gone.
So in order to balance out the words that are added to American English each year, I propose a second set—words that need to be heard no more, words that serve no purpose except to ignite righteous anger in the listener’s soul. Words that plain piss you off.
Unlike the backward-looking and open-arms welcoming list of new words, what follows are words and phrases that I propose we retire in the New Year. Like most lists, this one is subjective and incomplete. If you see a phrase you regularly use below, maybe it’s time to rethink it, to do what Ezra Pound urged turn-of-the-century poets to do: Make it new. Or, it could be that I’m just an asshole.
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This list is a beginning. Please add to, argue with, and eye-roll in the comments, or, if you’ve got a print copy of C-VILLE in your hands, get thee to an Internet-ery and join C-VILLE’s “STOP SAYING THAT!” Facebook page, where you can find more words and phrases that didn’t make it into the print edition.
“Take it to another level”
This phrase usually comes out of the person who’s designated himself the “Big Picture Thinker” in meetings, which means that he’s fatally oblivious to both details and reality. Dear Mr. Outside The Box: What level? Exactly how many levels are there? Is it like Mario Brothers? How do we get to the next one?
“Blessed day” as an imperative
Will you people please stop telling the rest of us (usually via outgoing voicemail message) to have a “blessed day”? Do you realize how much you’re cheapening the very concept of “blessing”? If the Creator wants to bless me, fine. If he doesn’t, your half-assed urging Him/Her/It to do it third-hand via a voice recording on a Nokia cell phone probably isn’t going to change His/Her/Its divine plan. Here’s an idea: Go bless yourself.
Yes, it’s funny because they think it means one thing and anyone who’s ever set foot in a frat house knows it means something else. But a right-wing, anti-government, militia-smooching nut by any other name still smells as gamey and desperate.
And it turns out that Teabaggers actually hate to be called Teabaggers. And while this may seem like a good enough reason to keep the term around, I think one reason in particular is strong enough to retire it.
Even as an epithet, the name “Tea Bagger” serves to falsely tie these 21st century, white, musket-loving, rhetoric-spouting walking phobias to our 18th century forefathers —another group of white, rhetoric-spouting, musket-loving patriots who, incidentally, were in favor of the progress of the human condition, not returning society back to the muck from which we crawled.
WORDS WE REALLY SHOULD
“Death panel” as a transitive verb—E.g., “Did you see Brian Dawkins death-panel that slot receiver last night?” Thanks, Sarah Palin.
“Caddywoompus”—We should probably write this into the state codes as a Class C misdemeanor.
“Bloody well”—particularly the usage that appears between subject and predicate: “It bloody well isn’t.” or “That muskrat bloody well ate my sneakers.” Etc.
“Crook”—Nixon did wonders for this word, and how have we repaid him? By describing CEOs of mammoth banks as “embattled” and putting Tom Delay on reality TV.
“Quintessential” as modifier of epithet—E.g., “A quintessential dumbass” or “quintessential jackoff.” Can also be used substituted with the compound adjective “top-shelf.”
“Scofflaw”—Who cares what it really means (someone who spends half a lifetime ducking parking tickets)? The first time you say it aloud, you’ll fall in love.—S.W.
Any white football/basketball player who “brings his lunch pail to work” (c.f. any black athlete of same sport who is “a natural” or who has “incredible athleticism.”)
Wes Welker and LeBron James will thank you to acknowledge their…you know…humanity.
The “impacted/contacted” problem
And here we have the heart of the overused/meaningless words problem. Some years ago, Satan’s Minions of Lexicographic Evil—a.k.a. SMOLEs or “newscasters,” “public relations representatives” or “press secretaries”—started peppering their teleprompter-enhanced speech with the word “impact” used in verb form, e.g., “How will the rise in plutonium in this year’s salmon run impact the president’s military budget?” From there it spread.
Now the verb “impacted” is everywhere. A great majority of the time, though, the people who use the word mean “affected.” But this doesn’t matter to them because it’s not the informational content of the word that people who use words like “impacted” and “contacted” care about. It’s the personal/rhetorical content—i.e., what the fact that they use these words says about them.
Nobody says “impacted” because they think it’s the correct word. They use it because the word announces that its user is part of a particular group of language users—press and government officials. They think the word’s appearance in their sentence is an announcement of their Importance and Knowledge. It’s not; it’s an acknowledgement that they watch cable news by the metric shit-ton.
The same lexicographic phenomenon occurs in other genres. Spend two minutes watching ESPN or a football game, and inevitably you’ll hear a commentator say “contacted” when he means “touched” or “tackled.” Different problems, same root: the desire to make something simple sound complicated and thus elevate the speaker into the realm of specialized knowledge. English composition expert Ken Macrorie had a name for this kind of purposeful-yet-meaningless linguistic dress-up game: Engfish.
We really are a nation of five-year olds who have only just discovered that our parents are not watching. Artisan bacon? Okay, if you insist. Bacon martinis? Well… Bacon birthday cakes? Surely bacon and icing really don’t… Melted cheese in a coffee cup made entirely of bacon? This started to get ridiculous a long time ago.
Can we, in 2010, move our fetish-creating attention to the next thing denied to us in unhealthful amounts during our childhood? Let’s stop using bacon as a conversation piece and go back to just eating it, shall we?
Oh wait, we have? Cupcakes, you say? Well, I suppose that’s some kind of progress.
Remember the good old days when people said “maverick” and you shook your head slightly, thinking about that noble, principled, desert-dried right-wing wacko John McCain? Oh, where does the time go?
Of course now, McCain’s White House chances are finished, thanks in large part to the newest (un-noble, unprincipled, tundra-burned right-wing wacko) maverick—Mrs. Sarah Palin. Just like Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female, Palin seized her opportunity as McCain’s new Straight Talk Express roommate to effectively—and with wolf-like stealth and precision—steal McCain’s maverick-iness, assume his campaign’s rhetorical boilerplate as her own, and dump the body back on Capitol Hill.
Now the word “maverick” means thousand-dollar pantsuits and peekaboo heels. McCain at least made a stab at taking (politically popular) principled stands against his party. Palin, on the other hand, loves to rail against federal spending from a state that receives the second-most per capita funding from D.C.
“In space” in football
If you spend any time watching the game of football broadcasted on a television, you’ve no doubt heard this phrase more than enough. This is the latest in football jargon that has come to us via the “impacted/contacted” route. If only there was a way to send it back.
Broadcasters use this phrase when they want to describe a usually quick and elusive ball carrier in the “open field,” a phrase that apparently just doesn’t smack of douchebag enough for them (c.f. “douchebag”). What they really mean is “open space,” i.e., a situation where one isn’t troubled by many people—kind of like Scott Stadium this year. It’s unclear how “open” got dropped from “in open space,” but, please, someone find it and return it to this phrase. Or, better yet, just drop the phrase altogether.
“Moving forward” as an introductory clause
Much like the impacted/contacted/in space problems, starting a sentence with the phrase “moving forward” doesn’t signify much more than the fact that you’re a part of a particular discourse community—in this case, a member of a community that has attended many other business meetings of no consequence and have learned, to borrow a phrase from William Matthews, to speak fluent fog.
“Moving forward” is a fairly basic tenet of physics, one that each of us figures out before we learn to leave our fingers out of our noses in public. Barring anything overly Einstein-y occurring, “moving forward” is pretty much the way time works. Things happen, then more things happen, and not one of us has the ability to move backwards in time. So, no need to point that out before announcing that the break-room microwave needs cleaning. Thanks.
We will now officially retire “hipster” in favor of “douchebag.” Thank you for your attention.
“It’s all good”
This phrase, like its cousin “No worries,” comes to us via that special cultural segment of linguistic despair—faux hippies. Usually meant to signify that the user has forgiven you some trespass, its lightness and (shudder) “chill”-ness doesn’t serve to cover up the strain of passive-aggressiveness usually associated with this particular discourse community. Its user desperately wants to be easy-going but usually isn’t. So let’s see if we can adopt this usage rule: If it’s not 2003 and you’re not MC Hammer trying to make a star-crossed comeback, try a phrase expressing forgiveness that is a little more sincere.
“It is what it is”
Just because you once accidentally got lost in the Eastern Religion section at Barnes & Noble, this does not make you Mr. This-Temporal-Reality-Is-But-A-Fleeting-And-Imperfect-Reflection-Of-My-True-Nature. So stop using Zen-ish phrases to excuse yourself for mucking up yet another job assignment or making someone else’s life a little more miserable. (See “suffering” in Eastern Religion section.)
Adopting the language of a spiritual/ethical doctrine does not mean you suddenly and magically are covered by its moral insurance plan. It also takes a little bit of, uh, practice.
“I want those X minutes of my life back”
This piece of snark is usually found in Internet comments attached to a bad video. But looking back on how you spend the other majority of minutes in your life (wage-slave duties, Internet porn, reality TV, Guitar Hero, pre-teen vampire novels), are those minutes really all that important?