Banished Words

Changing language


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As it has every year since 1976, Lake Superior State University has released its latest “List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse, and General Uselessness.” The annual list, the impish brainchild of LSSU’s Public Relations Office, contains the twelve most nominated words among the thousands sent mostly by folks from the United States and Canada. The 2012 list of unfriended words includes the following: amazing (the most nominated), baby bump (a close second), shared sacrifice, occupy, blowback, man cave, the new normal, pet parent, win the future, trickeration, ginormous, and thank you in advance. 

Of more interest than the list, however, are the comments that accompany the nominations, for they reveal a rather flinty linguistic conservatism, a curmudgeonly sense that words have gone wild, have wrinkled proper discourse beyond the smoothing ministrations of even a steam press. Like beleaguering lexical Visigoths, the comments suggest, the nominated words have battered down the gate and spread their rampaging, disarray within the sacrosanct wall of the language community.

One large group of comments asserts that overuse, especially by celebrity culture, has led to a degradation or even possible loss of the word’s original meaning and has usurped a simpler and better word. These commenters see overuse as a kind of lactic acid buildup leading to meaning muscle fatigue. They appear to assume a meaning checkpoint beyond which a word should not stray, lest it wander into a Claymore-filled semantic field. Martha Stewart is particularly pilloried for overusing “amazing.” “Every talk show uses this word at least two times every five minutes,” writes one commenter. “Hair is not ‘amazing.’  Shoes are not ‘amazing’ . . . I saw Martha Stewart use the word ‘amazing’ six times in the first five minutes of her television show.” Writes another, “I blame Martha Stewart because to her, EVERYTHING is amazing.” Perhaps we now know one reason Hallmark Channel’s cancelling Stewart’s show, due to its paltry average of 225,000 viewers. And lest we think such criticism is gender exclusive, another commenter notes “Anderson Cooper used it three times recently in the opening 45 second of his program.”

Other indictments of celebrity culture include “baby bump” (“I’m tired of a pregnancy being reduced to a celebrity accessory”), “the new normal” (“Often hosts on TV news channels use the phrase shortly before introducing some self-help guru who gives glib advice to the unemployed and other people having financial difficulties”), and “man cave” (Overused by television home design and home buying shows” and “has trickled down to sitcoms and commercials”). We adore our celebrities. We despise our celebrities because we despise ourselves for adoring them. Do we contradict ourselves? Well, that’s OK; we’re large; we contain multitudes.

Other commenters note that overuse has diluted what they take to be the word’s true signification. For “amazing”: “People use ‘amazing’ for anything that is nice or heartwarming. In other words, for things that are not amazing.” “There are any number of adjectives that are far more descriptive.” “The word which once aptly described the process of birth is now used to describe such trivial things as toast, or the color of a shirt.” For “baby bump”: “Why can’t we use the old tried-and-true ‘pregnant?’  For “occupy”: “It has been overused and abused even to promote Black Friday shopping.” For “blowback”: “the word ‘reaction’ would have been more than sufficient.” For “trickeration”: “What’s wrong with ‘trick’ or ‘trickery?’”  For “ginormous”: “This word is just a made-up combination of two words. Either word is sufficient.”

Alas, language changes whether we want it to or not. They have to: things change, we change, and language changes so we can talk about it all. As University of Illinois linguist Denis Baron says, “Like all living languages, English is always changing: new words are coined and old ones are modified or discarded, as we scramble to keep up with the human imagination and an ever-changing world.” And that means words broaden and narrow their meanings, or we metaphorically extend words ready at hand. “Holy Day” became “holiday;” “cool” once referred to a specific style of jazz rather than a general expression of approval. “Meat” once indicated any kind of food, “deer” any kind of animal, “vulgar” once meant ordinary, “girl” any young person. We “surf” the Internet, likely using a “mouse” to do so and hoping to experience no “bugs” or “viruses” or “worms.” Language is irrepressibly mutable, gloriously so, I think. The only immutable languages are dead languages.

And “trickeration”? You can find it in the Oxford English Dictionary, which records it as part of African American Vernacular English, first used in 1940. Langston Hughes’s Montage of a Dream Deferred contains the lines, “I believe my old lady’s pregnant again! Fate must have some kind of trickeration to populate the cullud nation.” And “ginormous?” It’s included in the 2007 update of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary and was first used in 1948 in a British dictionary of military slang. And “blowback?” Sure, it means “reaction,” but that meaning has been extended to include effects and practices in such areas as forensics, jurisprudence, helicopter rotors and smoking marijuana — as well as being used as the title of three books, a film, and a role-playing game. And “baby bump?” Could it not be an attempt to make “pregnant,” which has no gradations to denote more or less, a gradable term meaning “just a little bit pregnant”? We see such an attempt when folks say “very pregnant” to indicate a late, quite noticeable stage.

The fact is that words are always prone to vandalism, to being pilfered from their secure semantic niches and made the possession of others, to serve their own particular purposes. And amid this linguistic leveraging, it’s unlikely that whatever prototypical meaning a word has will be lost. After all, we all know, and will continue to know, what “pregnant” means, even if we do use such phrases as “a pregnant pause,” or “a pregnant question” or describe a thundercloud “pregnant with rain.” And we will continue to find it amazing.

Many of the comments on the banished twelve centered on their sound, specifically, the disagreeable sensation the word provoked. Banish “amazing,” one commenter said, “to stop my head from exploding,” while another claimed it made her “teeth grate” and her “hackles rise” and “annoyed” her dog to boot. “Baby bump “makes pregnancy sound like some fun and in-style thing to do.”  “Pet parent” is “cloying” and “capable of raising my blood sugar,” “trickeration” “sounds unintelligent,” “ginormous” “makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck every time I hear it” and “just sounds ridiculous,” “the new normal” fosters “cynicism about the ability of government to improve people’s lives,” and the overuse of “occupy” is not “palatable.”

Linguists will tell us that words are simply strings of sounds, and that those sounds in no way determine the words’ legitimacy. An opera in Italian is not better than one in German because you dislike the supposedly “harsh,” guttural, deep-in-the-throat sound of German. Being put off by the soundscape of a language is a matter of taste, a subjective experience of its words, not an objective fact about them. The bickering such judgments foster leads nowhere, for every person’s experience is, finally, true. Still, it is interesting that we do more than see and hear words; we feel them. Language is embodied, not just a baked-in set of abstract principles. Words have physical impact, a texture, a sensation. They are visceral, and perhaps this helps explain linguistic conservatism: any change is felt, not simply noted.

But, as Columbia University linguists John McWhorter maintains, language is “disheveled,” logically untidy and convoluted enough to send an efficiency expert scrambling for the exit. According to McWhorter, language conservatives are text bound; they cleave to the change-resistant written word and view deviations from it as a ginormous trickeration toward language traditions they cherish and, therefore, wish to preserve. For journalist and author Robert Lane Greene, such “aggrieved conservatism” is blowback against a change of style they feel should go out of style. But, as Greene notes, “Yesterday’s abomination is today’s rule.” As the life of any language reveals, language conservatism is a position cannot be long occupied, is thankless in advance, and will not win the future. Language change is the old normal. The spoken word always has and always will amble blithely away from its written tradition, with scarcely a backward glance. • 17 September 2012