The weight of words

If the legend is to be believed, Dr. Seuss originated the word "nerd"in the book If I Ran the Zoo. I'm  sure you've heard he was a nerd and invented many a word.

If the legend is to be believed, Dr. Seuss originated the word “nerd”in the book If I Ran the Zoo. I’m sure you’ve heard he was a nerd and invented many a word.

It always surprises and thrills me to see the reactions I get to my writings on words, both in the newspaper and on my blog. After my last column on words and phrases that need to go away, some readers noted their own pet peeves. There are a lot more word nerds out there than I thought. (Welcome! You’ll get your welcome packet and stylebook—handy for when editors take over—momentarily.)

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One phrase that’s come into vogue in the last couple of decades, especially in broadcast news, bothers Richard Clark (and me too): “went/gone missing.” It irritated those who compile Lake Superior State University’s banished-words list enough that it was on its 2007 list (along with, among others, “truthiness”  and “robbery/drug deal gone bad”). That phrase was the bane of copy editors at the Democrat-Gazette back when I was on the copy desk, if only because “vanished” and “missing” are shorter. Even if I weren’t in this profession, I think that phrase would still put my teeth on edge.

This, via the BBC, is a war zone in Mogadishu, Somalia.

This, via the BBC, is a war zone in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Walter Thurman isn’t so crazy about the phrase “war zone.” When it’s an actual war zone such as what’s going on in the Middle East or Ukraine, I don’t have a problem with it.

This, at the Florida Capitol, is not a war zone. Yes, that's a Festivus pole of beer cans next to the nativity. Image from Flaglerlive.

This, at the Florida Capitol, is not a war zone. Yes, that’s a Festivus pole of beer cans next to the nativity.
Image from Flaglerlive.

But when it’s applied to something like dodging and outwitting other shoppers on Black Friday or putting up nativity scenes … he’s definitely got a point—those things aren’t war, so it’s not a war zone.

Editorial cartoon by Pat Bagley.

Editorial cartoon by Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune.

Editorial cartoon (or was this a dream from last night?) by Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune.

Editorial cartoon (or was this a dream from last night?) by Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune.

Speaking of war, “in the trenches” is one of the phrases that irks Don Short. Can’t say I blame him on that, especially as most of us haven’t actually been in the trenches. And why does our language have to be so militarized?

Yep, let's be literal. Image found on DigDang.

Yep, let’s be literal.
Image found on DigDang.

I almost feel the need to tell someone to “cover me” so I can make it back to the newsroom refrigerator for my water bottle without getting fragged. Of course, here it’s more likely to be from rubber bands or paper airplanes. Can we get Workers’ Comp for paper cuts?

But enough about the words we hate—what about some we love?

Here in the U.S., we have oodles of colorful words that are as descriptive as they are fun to say. When I hear “curmudgeon,” for example, my mind instantly goes to Statler and Waldorf (I miss The Muppet Show, what can I say?), and I picture Maggie Smith’s Violet Grantham of Downton Abbey when I hear “persnickety.”

Bluto, you big galoot! Image found on Popeye Wikia.

Bluto, you big galoot!
Image found on Popeye Wikia.

I see Bluto from Popeye when someone says “galoot.” And who doesn’t love to “lollygag” or start a “kerfuffle,” especially if you get to play with “doohickeys” and “thingamabobs” while doing it?

Those words are pretty much accepted everywhere, though perhaps not used enough. There are some, though, that seem to be used mostly in the South. Sure, some of those words aren’t exactly grammatically correct, but they’re colorful and evocative of a simpler time.

When a Southerner goes home, she's sure to hear at least half of these words in the first five minutes. Image found on 90daysofart.

When a Southerner goes home, she’s sure to hear at least half of these words in the first five minutes.
Image found on 90daysofart.

When I hear words like “tump” and “turnt over,” it takes me back to childhood and memories of Decoration Day at our community cemetery—a day used just as much to visit with neighbors and family as to honor the dead. And of course, since parts of the cemetery were edged by pastures and gardens, occasionally you’d hear, “Stay away from that bob war!” Nobody ever said that when we kids would decide to test the electric fences some of our neighbors had. Perhaps that was their way of thinning the herd …

Sometimes we behaved. Really, it happened.

Sometimes we behaved. Really, it happened.

More than once I was called the “aggravatinest” kid ever seen, though I’m sure my brothers were worse (scratch that—I know they were). I have to admit that I sometimes feel nostalgic for the threat of a “bundle of switches” for Christmas if I didn’t settle down, especially after a conniption.

Just when something was getting fun for my brothers and me, we’d hear an adult say we were “fixin’ to go, so you kids better straighten up raht now.” Adults didn’t seem to find it funny if you asked them where this “to go” was that they were repairing. And if we kept it up … that’s when the first, middle and last names were yelled and all fun ceased. As I’m neither a belle or a serial killer, hearing my first, middle and last is not thrilling in the least.

And, of course, when we Southerners sweetly say, “well, bless your heart,” sometimes—not all the time—that’s our polite way of saying, “you poor, ignert dummy, you just don’t know any better” (and several other rather impolite things). But don’t let on, please.

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Poor Ralphie! Image found on sgbrowne.com.

Poor Ralphie!
Image found on sgbrowne.com.

Then there are the words that, for some people, are dirty. Like “holiday.” To them I say: Get over it.

I don’t like everybody, and I certainly don’t condone some of the things other people do, even when those things are legal. That’s my hang-up, and as long as it’s legal, they can do it; I don’t want to impose my morals on everyone else, nor do I have the right to do that. That’s why it matters not if someone says “Happy holidays” to me rather than “Merry Christmas” (unless it’s with a sneer), or even “Happy Chanukah.”

What do I mean by that? Just what it says. Image found on imgion.com.

What do I mean by that? Just what it says.
Image found on imgion.com.

I know and accept that others have different beliefs and accept the greeting in the spirit given. More than just those holidays are celebrated at this time of the year, so I more often than not just say “Happy holidays” on the chance that someone celebrates Kwanzaa, the solstice, Festivus, Boxing Day, Chrismukkah, or any number of real and made-up holidays.

The point is this: With everything else going on in the world, there are far bigger things to worry about than a store clerk who tells you “Happy holidays.” Like people who like to “gift” others.

I prefer my nouns unverbed, if you please.

arlo-janis-gift

Arlo & Janis, by Jimmy Johnson.

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5 thoughts on “The weight of words

  1. There are some very useful words that I don’t see used very often, for example:

    Pute: meaning something that is above question

    Hysteriant: meaning someone given the hysterical: rants

    Sheveled; meaning someone who is very attractively groomed.

    Array: meaning something that is highly organized

    Like

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