Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Measuring words for the memory hole

A new year has begun and with it the language mavens at Lake Superior State University have published their annual list of words and phrases they wish to toss from the American lexicon. Here they are: viral, epic, fail, wow factor, aha moment, back story, BFF, man up, refudiate, mama grizzlies, the American People, I'm just sayin', live life to the fullest, and using Facebook or Google as verbs.

In case you wondered, as I did, Lake Superior State University is in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., a rather charming blue-collar town that I never knew boasted a university. Clearly, an interdisciplinary cadre of fellow cranks came up with a fun and satisfying publicity vehicle for their obscure state college. They deserve kudos, but I think most of us could come up with lists just as newsworthy.

I'll agree on some of the 2011 banished words, but some are okay with me. I am still amused by "man up," and while Facebook should never be a verb, I rarely go a day without googling.

I would submit a few particularly grating words of my own. Before we enter another election campaign, I wish to erase from memory the pompous term "gravitas." This one word makes the writer/speaker look much sillier than the candidate whose claim to seriousness is being questioned.

A warning to candidates and other public figures—when something you have said makes headlines and prompts head-shaking editorials, think before you trot out the old chestnut "They took it out of context." That phrase seems to have been drained of its meaning in recent years. Apparently, many people think it just means "let me off the hook; I'm not a bad guy."

Taking something out of context means just that! The context gives the controversial phrase a different meaning than the excerpt would indicate. A film critic may say "This movie has everything an audience could want, if they came to the theater to catch up on their sleep." The movie theater's ad uses the quote, leaving off the second clause. That's out of context!

Another phrase I'd like to ban is "Our thoughts and prayers are with [insert victims or families of victims of some disaster/crime/enormity]." I recognize the good intent behind this phrase, but I'm tired of it nonetheless. In addition to being banal and cliched, it is meaningless. Our thoughts may be with the victims, but so what? Why in an attempt to comfort those in sorrow are we so eager to pat ourselves on the back? "I'm thinking of you" puts the emphasis on me and my compassion rather than you and your troubles.

As to the second part of the phrase, well, it just doesn't make sense. Our prayers are with you? How can prayers be "with" someone? It would make more sense to say "Our prayers are for you" or, far better, "We are praying for you." Ah, but that requires action and some measure of commitment. It's a little too serious for the quickly tossed-off pro forma condolence.

Well, I suppose that's enough to offend a few of you, my BFFs. Man up! I'm just sayin'.

1 comment:

  1. Palin reportedly explained her use of "refudiate" quite clearly by saying she was "contributing to the living language". She further justified it's coinage by saying that "Shakespeare liked to coin new words too". She was probably having a aha moment.