Commentary

2019 Words to the Unwise: Terms to Reconsider Using

By AL ROMANO | Mar 06, 2019

At the end of the year, many word-lovers (philologists) like to reflect on what “the word” of the year was. According to the American Dialect Society, a venerable, 130-year-old organization, its members voted the phrase tender-age shelter (facility/camp) as their choice for 2018, referring to the detention centers on the southern American borders, which caused much controversy. The even-more venerable Oxford English Dictionary chose toxic as its most popular word; Collins English Dictionary, out of Glasgow, Scotland, selected single-use, a phrase much heard on LBI and in Stafford last year. The online dictionary.com picked misinformation.

All these terms arose from their prevalence among users of said dictionaries and/or members, and thus reflected some of the concerns embedded in their deployment. In the spirit of philology and considering the widespread tendency to make resolutions for the new year, I have serendipitously selected terms that might be better served in our talk with a bit more caution, as we might reconsider foods and other substances we ingest, to best assist our collective health.

Unlike a top 10 list for the year, the following words and terms have been collected for us to decide when and how to use them, not as list of favorites or worsts. Beginning with the somewhat culinary pair nothing burger and baked in the cake. The first one reminds me of the 1984 Wendy’s commercial slogan, “Where’s the beef?” (which Walter Mondale used against Gary Hart in the Democratic presidential primary that year). It also sounds like a dieter’s penal entrée, suggesting a concoction brought to a prisoner with a file inside it. Their use doesn’t add much to the meaning of an utterance, but rather outs the opinion of the speaker — which usually disparages another person.

A somewhat related overuse is a bright shiny object, or some variation, which again denigrates the words or actions of a person as a distraction — such as what children might find attractive (and perhaps put in their mouths, as kids are wont to do). Maybe a more reasoned, less stereotyped selection of statements would help us understand each other and our mutual reality better.

A next group of expressions represents our propensity for “slips of the tongue,” a great metaphor if I ever heard (or spoke) one. Due to the often-contentious and definitely stress-filled declarations we say and hear, some phrases get mangled, such as imminent domain for eminent domain, hone in for home in or hone itself, and the reason is … because.

Even though the government’s takeovers of private land for supposed public good, certainly bandied about the shore after Sandy restorations created civil unrest and surely on the U.S./Mexican border, may be coming soon, they aren’t hanging over our heads right now; besides, eminent domain is a legal term, and eminent/imminent sound like homophones (like there/there/their, another commonly confused group).

Home in v. hone are a stranger pair; a drone may get close to your home, or it can be used by Amazon to deliver a future package, while sharpening your knife or your mind is a different ballgame. Again, someone probably said it while under pressure of producing spontaneous speech on a show; others heard it and, like all humans, repeated it as correct.  We often confer prestige on people we consider intelligent or important because they speak publicly, or because we respect them for other reasons. Social beings like to communicate in similar ways.

And the redundancy of reason … because has proliferated since the end of the 20th century; its cause could be attributed to different things, including as an emphatic repetition, such as in speeches or poetry, for rhetorical effect. Or it could be a prestige-induced usage, generated by “important folks” and imitated by “the rest of us.”

A final group heard often in 2018 offers more ominous undertones: the continued charge of fake news, foisted on us by the enemies of the people, while others employ alternative facts. The first phrase really doesn’t clarify truth as much as it opines about what others claim to be truth; the last one is a misleading euphemism, somewhat reminiscent of Vietnam-era phrases like collateral damage for civilian casualties.

As for the phrase enemy of the people, its origins can be traced to the Roman Empire, where those not loyal to the emperor were dubbed hostis publicus, public enemy. In the 19th century it became the title of a Hendrik Ibsen play about a doctor who discovered that a spa that made a fortune for his town was dangerously toxic, but his brother, defending the city’s coffers, turned on him and labeled him as the enemy of the people. In 1917 Lenin referred to non-Bolsheviks by that name, and Chairman Mao in the 1960s co-opted the term. Thus, the phrase has a freighted history, so we should be careful about referring to journalists, whose civic duty is to report on, not support, public figures, as enemies, and the leaders themselves who employ the term should consider its context and connotations in the annals of tyrants and oppressors.

Additionally, two other pairs of words might best be used with care: collusion/ conspiracy and impeachment/conviction. In our era of heightened partisan passion and punditry, doling out such legal terms infrequently and judiciously might aid our public digestion of news. Conspiracy obviously evokes a conscious attempt to do wrong, and impeachment is the congressional equivalent of an indictment, which must be adjudicated by the Senate, which may or may not bring a conviction.

As we live through the coming year, an already much-used word may be trotted out with full-fledged fanfare: unprecedented. The events of the past year make this an apt adjective for 2019, in its Latinate-tinged air of formality and finality. Yet another word might make a more useful exemplar of our American language: newfangled. Its etymology includes a German verb, fangel, meaning “to grasp,” as well as the Middle English gar-fangel, spear-fish, which makes a nice association with life near the Atlantic, right? Also, its insouciance and irreverence make it an American word and concept. Its connotations of latching on to the novel simply because of its novelty put a healthy wariness into its user’s mouth. A bonus is the Cambridge Dictionary includes unprecedented as a possible synonym for newfangled.

My commentary began with an analogy of making resolutions to eat healthier to using language more carefully, and one more comparison between the two sticks out, to my mind: The overly wordy talk of so many people in the public and private spheres can be directly correlated with overeating, of cramming too much in the mouth and body for our own good. And last year people’s verbosity did seem like a kind of obesity. Let’s hope that we can modulate our talk this year and share our thoughts as we would a welcome a much-needed meal.

Al Romano lives in Manahawkin.

 

 

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