Words’ worn-out welcome

I think this was most of us in 2020. Illustration by John Deering.

Soon, Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., is scheduled to release its annual “List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness.”

I say “scheduled” because I wouldn’t put anything past 2020, including delaying or preventing the release that word nerds like myself hunger for each year. Shifty, sneaky 2020 … I wouldn’t trust it to do … well, anything, really, other than make our lives miserable.

That doesn’t mean that word nerds haven’t been busy already with their own words and phrases they’d like to never have to endure again, as well as those they’d want protected.

John McPherson of Searcy wrote: “One word I would like to be excised from the brain of every living being is ‘snuck’ used in place of sneaked, but I know it’s a lost cause, but it’s encouraging to me that my spellcheck does not recognize it as a word.”

I wouldn’t get too excited about that. The spellcheck I deal with every day is confused by simple words it sees thousands of times.

I’m not a fan of Orwell’s fiction, but he was a master with … uh … words. Image found on The Day.

“Because of the actions of some elected officials during this awful year,” John wrote, “I thought it a good time to re-read Orwell’s ‘1984’ where I found a neat word I was not familiar with: ‘Persiflage,’ which means light and slightly contemptuous mockery or banter. ‘He exuded an air of persiflage,’ I think would be one way to use it. I think it would be complimentary.”

Persiflage has been in my bank for a while, just waiting for a good time to use it. Maybe when we get back to a more relaxed time when mockery becomes more innocent again.

Friend and former colleague Mary Hargrove (one of the smartest and funniest women I’ve ever known) offered: “Resilience. Every xx$%%^ flood, fire, earthquake and now disease has someone touting how we will all regain our lives in a minute. I’ve practiced it four years with the orange breast-feeder president and I never felt better. OK. Now I do.”

It should be little wonder we’ve been friends for a couple of decades now. Same cheery attitude I carry off so well, plus a distaste for whiners with fake tans who somehow convince their followers they’re both winner and victim.

Having been through a few of these in my life, I know a sense of humor is important. Image found on World Laughter Tour.

Another dear friend, Sarah Kinsey Ricard, would love to see “pivot” head out the door. “Pivot is overused. Everybody is pivoting. Maybe we could change direction occasionally to give pivot a break.”

Politics and corporatedom are especially egregious in their use of pivot and its cousin “pivot point,” which I keep seeing in headlines that make me want to throw my computer against the wall (and I still have flashbacks to Ross screaming “Pivot!” in “Friends”). Like “at the end of the day” (Bob Adams’ pet peeve) and “to be sure” (one of mine), it’s fairly useless as far as getting an idea across clearly. So many phrases have been so overused that they lose all real meaning and are useful only for padding essays that typically read better once they’re taken out. As Sarah said, “At the end of the day, we’ll pivot because it is what it is.”

Email correspondent Dan Daugherty is annoyed by “out of an abundance of caution.” Like those other phrases, it quickly becomes grating, yet people will keep using it, I’m guessing because they know it annoys some of us.

Randal Berry, who retired from the Little Rock Zoo in 2016 and has a strange affinity for reptiles (OK, so he was the reptile keeper), said: “I don’t wanna see ‘OK boomer’ again.”

I might pull out “OK boomer” if a boomer calls me a snowflake, especially if he then gets upset about it … like a snowflake. Image found on The Commonwealth Times.

At least Randal knows I won’t say it … unless he bugs me too much (I’m a little sister, remember, and we like to annoy friends and family when we can). I’m just glad I haven’t heard one for Gen-Xers (yet).

Joe O’Brien shared a word he really likes: “One mouthful I used in a grad school paper is antidisestablishmentarianism. I did not know then nor now the meaning, but it sounds so cool in a dense sense.”

Well, when you come to this word nerd, ya get the meaning. Merriam-Webster’s doesn’t list the word because of its lack of meaningful, sustained and widespread usage (which means it isn’t the longest word in that dictionary despite the frequent claim; that honor belongs to acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene, commonly known as ABS), but says it means “opposition to depriving a legally established state church of its status.” It developed as opposition to the Liberal Party’s disestablishmentarianism movement in Britain in the 19th century, which tried to remove the Church of England as the official state church of England, Ireland and Wales.

Kid, it was a life lesson. And acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene is harder to say, which is why people usually just say ABS. Image found on Pinterest.

While I’m a fan of words that are fun to say, like persnickety and discombobulated, I have to admit I feel a bit of pleasure when I get to use long words like “agathokakological” (composed of both good and evil), “contrasuggestible” (likely to respond to a suggestion by doing or believing the contrary), and “sesquipedalianism” (the practice of using long, sometimes obscure, words in speech or writing).

Doesn’t take much to make a word nerd happy some days, even in 2020. Though there’s always somebody who feels the need to get on the wrong side of people who know what they’re talking about.

Take Jenna Ellis, attorney to the president (please, please take her). Over the weekend, she tweeted the accusation that the mainstream media (meaning apparently any media source that doesn’t fawn over the president) is using the word “lie” to perpetrate a leftist agenda in which “definitions of words don’t have any fixed meaning.”

How dare the mainstream media use actual definitions! Screenshot from Jenna Ellis’ Twitter page.

Well, first of all, the word “lie” in this particular usage means, according to Merriam-Webster: (verb) to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive; (verb) to create a false or misleading impression; (noun) an assertion of something known or believed by the speaker or writer to be untrue with intent to deceive; (noun) an untrue or inaccurate statement that may or may not be believed true by the speaker or writer; (noun) something that misleads or deceives. Considering that the president has frequently done just that on a daily basis, often about the most absurdly easy things to fact-check, the use of the word in opinion, analysis and quotes is perfectly objective in most cases.

Second of all, it appears Ms. Ellis is attempting to create a semantic shift for the word “lie” to mean, I guess, anything that doesn’t agree with Donald Trump’s version of reality regardless of evidence to the contrary. A semantic shift is possible because while definitions are somewhat fixed, they evolve through time and use (evolution is real, folks!). Literal meanings may become figurative (like milking a cow and milking supporters), or definitions may narrow or broaden. Or perhaps she may be attempting what Grammar Girl calls semantic bleaching: “when the specific, often powerful meaning of a word becomes diluted over time through repetition and overuse. ”

I’d add misuse to that as well.

Well, this use is clearly legitimate as this Pallas Cat IS awesome in the very real sense. Just look at it, people! Image by Lizzy Stewart/Flickr.

“For example,” Samantha Enslen of Grammar Girl writes, “the original meaning of the word ‘awesome’ was ‘full of awe, profoundly reverential.’ Something awesome might be the peak of a snow-covered mountain, breaking through the clouds. The vastness of the ocean. Or the spread of stars above you on a clear night.

“But then we had to go and start calling everything ‘awesome.’ Our new shoes are awesome. This one kind of shampoo is awesome. The new Heath Caramel Brownie Blizzard from Dairy Queen is awesome. (I mean, it actually is awesome … but you get my point.)

“Through overuse, the word has lost its potency. No one expects a pair of shoes to ‘fill you with awe.’ Awesome is now just a general word that means nifty or cool.”

Of course, I could be giving Ms. Ellis far too much credit. She probably isn’t attempting any sort of bleaching except perhaps on her roots. Somehow I don’t think she’s a word nerd, and she certainly doesn’t like non-fawning media types.

I’m mostly in pajamas. If I have to go out, I put on pants. I don’t go out much. Image found on India Today.

Tim Herrera of The New York Times wrote earlier this month of the 20 words and phrases that defined this year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of them end up on the banished list after we come out of the other side of the pandemic (if I never hear hydroxychloroquine again in connection with covid-19, I will be a very happy nerd).

Sure, “Blursday” is funny now, but once life gets back to somewhat normal, how many of us will want to remember how much less meaning time had in 2020? Will we still be “doomscrolling” horrible news on social media when this is all over? Are we really gluttons for punishment? (Don’t answer that.)

On the other hand, with any luck, more people will respect terms like “social distancing,” “contact tracing” and “PPE,” and understand their importance to our health in a pandemic, as well as those giving their time and sometimes their lives to keep the rest of us safe.

I know, who am I kidding? We’ll always have contrasuggestible detractors, which is why the rest of us have (and wear) masks.

Think of the contrasuggestible person as an octopus who has been told to keep his tentacles to himself and not punch passing fish. No one’s gonna tell him he can’t punch fish, dang it! GIF found on Smithsonian Magazine.