Sunday, January 17, 2016

Worthless Words

Up in the frozen north, where the long winters chill the body and soul, the inhabitants spend their time doing two things:

 (1) Huddling together for warmth.

(2)  Inventing distractions to keep their minds off huddling together for warmth.

A good example is Sault St.Marie, Mich., a town that remains encased in ice half of the year and where many inhabitants pay for their groceries in beaver pelts.

It is also the home of Lake Superior State University whose faculty and students have found a really fun way of staying intellectually toasty.

For 40 years or so, they have complied an annual list of “Words Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness.”

The school’s website sums up this year’s winners thus: “Overused words and phrases are ‘problematic’ for thousands of Queen's English ‘stakeholders,’” said an LSSU spokesperson while ‘vaping’ an e-cigarette during a ‘presser.’  “Once something is banished, there's no ‘walking it back;’ that's our ‘secret sauce,' and there’s no ‘price point’ for that.”

Topping this year’s list is the word “so” which is being overused as the first word in the answer to any question. For instance, “So, why are you reading this column?” “So I have insomnia and I thought this would help me sleep.”

So that’s merely an example, not to be confused with the high quality of work on view here. 

Looming large in the political arena is “walk it back,” an exercise that is undertaken when an elected official says something so dumb or devoid of truth that an explanation is required.  “Walking it back” sounds so much nicer than “apology” or “clarification” or “foot-in-mouth disease.”

Of course, this often leads to the non-apology apology such as this classic from Sen. Bob Packwood who was accused of sexual harassment. “I’m apologizing for the conduct that it was alleged that I did, and I say I am sorry.”

Those who don’t “walk it back” may be forced to “double down.”

Next on the list is “conversation.” Online publications and TV talking heads invite us to “join the conversation,” an inoffensive phrase which in fact means “we want our audience to engage in linguistic mud wrestling, which includes but is not limited to personal insults, threats of violence and lunatic fringe diatribes.”  Apparently, the word “debate” is too harsh for our sensitive ears.

Then there is “problematic,” defined on Gawker as things that don't concern you at all, as opposed to actual problems such as your self-diagnosed nutritional disorders and that loser brother who wants to sleep on your sofa while he "looks for a job." 

Nowadays, it is thrown about to describe things such as the killer asteroid headed our way that will obliterate life as we know it or, worse, reports that “Dancing With the Stars” has been renewed for 10 more years.

“Presser” is taking the place of press conference or press release although I always thought it was an employee of a dry cleaning establishment.

“Secret sauce” isn’t a term I hear very much in my circle of friends, but if I did, it would probably be describing something that’s slathered on a burger which usually turns out to be Thousand Island dressing.

Instead, according to less an authority that the Oxford Dictionary, it is “a special feature or technique kept secret by an organization and regarded as being the chief factor in its success.”

Perhaps a more apt definition is this one: “Special skills, products or abilities that you try to make prospects believe your company has that no one else has, when in reality, everyone just sells the same stuff.”

Add to the list “break the Internet” meaning a post or video that will have so much online traffic that it will  “break” the Internet. Examples:  Any and all cat pictures or any and all pictures of Kim Kardashian’s derriere. Honorable mention:  First Lady Michelle Obama’s dress which got more attention than her husband’s State of the Union address.

“Manspreading” makes the list because it is presumed by some to be an assault on the endangered male.

For those who do not partake in the joys of public transportation, “manspreading” is the act of guys spreading their legs wide, into a sort of V-shaped slouch, effectively occupying two, sometimes even three, seats on a bus or subway.

It is so commonplace in New York that transportation officials are putting up posters urging men to share a little less of themselves in the city’s ever-crowded subways cars.  They will all carry the slogan, “Dude... Stop the Spread, Please.” 

Not on the Lake Superior list but a phrase I hear with increasing regularity is “no worries.” It seems it’s an expression seen in Australian English, British English and New Zealand English meaning "do not worry about that", "that's all right", or "sure thing.” In other words, “no problem.”

Leave it to the British Empire to corrupt our English.

Lest we worry that Lake Superior State is on a mission to eradicate every colorful phrase in our language, we can take comfort in the fact that Detroit's Wayne State University boasts of "bringing back great words" that have fallen out of favor. Past words the university wants people to use more include "caterwaul," ''rapscallion" and "flapdoodle."

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector1.

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