When I don't have much else to do, I like to sit and fume. I like to fume over a diverse range of things, but the English language- well, not the language itself, but its abuse- is usually my go-to. I would like to share this pleasure with you.
Most of my current beefs (beeves?) are not of incorrect use, but simple overuse. It seems that social media is our cultural funnel; folks from all walks of life and wildly varied interests are all dumped into the same handful of sites, thereby causing formerly esoteric phrases to become integrated into the mainstream lexicon quickly. Once there, they go from novel to bland to self-immolatingly annoying at a heretofore inconceivably rapid pace. Technology!
To explore this phenomenon, let's compare the not-so-long-ago retail industry term "Black Friday" with the now widely known "Star Wars Day," which, in case you haven't heard, is May 4th.
"Black Friday" went from abstruse to dead horse in about a decade, though the term reportedly has been used for nearly a half-century. I remember as a kid making a special train trip to the Hillsdale Mall on the day after Thanksgiving. My family did it for years, and the mall was definitely more crowded than normal, but never did we talk of our "Black Friday" plans. And there was definitely no mention of "Doorbuster" deals- which, if you think about it, is a pretty callous term, considering that a lot of the (not necessarily undeserved) injuries suffered on Black Friday are due to shoving and crowding at the gates. I really don't think it will be long before stores say fuck it and just refer to their Black Friday opening hour as "Trample Time."
Sure, the term "Black Friday" is beyond annoying1. But at least it got annoying at a gradual pace-a quaint mosey, really- compared to "Star Wars Day," I think I heard this phrase for the first time about two years ago, and at the time I thought it was clever and cute. Now, though, thanks to our cultural VitaMix, "Happy Star Wars Day" is something the hairdos at cable news morning shows wish their viewers on 5-4. Then they gigglingly drop the punchline- "May the Fourth be with you-" doubtless delighting the six viewers that have not yet been pummeled by it.
I suppose there is one potential upside: maybe we're not just witnessing rapid ascent and circulation, but also rapid demise. Maybe these are our linguistic fruit flies; maddening, but dead and gone (but of course replaced by a new generation) before you give them another thought. If we're indeed looking at an accelerated circle of life here, it is a great mercy, considering the excruciating longevity of Austin Powers quotes. So let's hope May the Fourth, along with the following terms, are enjoying their last buzz in our ears.
To avoid contributing to the phenomenon which at once embodies the homogeneity and narcissism of our time, I will avoid a lengthy discussion of this word. I bring it up, though, because I swear that when I first heard it not too long ago I thought "Hmm, that's a clever little term." Now, if I had a time machine, I would go back and strangle whoever who coined it.
If you took everyone- especially professional athletes- at their word, you would think that we're living in a world of purple grass, goldenrod skies, and canine-headed eagles. We are not. Use this guide: if you wake up and walk outside to see Salvador Dali trimming your lawn with a Gila monster who's shitting out melted gold coins- go ahead and describe that as surreal. If you run into a chick you dated for three weeks back in college at Crate and Barrel, that's not surreal, nor is it crazy or hilarious or worth mentioning. It's just what happens sometimes- describe accordingly.
If you can avoid going on Yelp.com, you can avoid about 95% of the uses of this threadbare phrase. It is a verbal shrug of the shoulders; an expression of pure indifference and lack of enthusiasm. I will confess to having a huge soft spot in my heart for this word, since general consensus is that it was first used in the Hungry Hungry Homer episode of The Simpsons. Bart and Lisa, having been asked by Homer whether they want to spend the day at BlockoLand, express their ambivalence with this word. They even spell it out for Homer- "M. E. H. Meh." It was clever and original then- about fifteen years ago.
Look- I'm not saying it's not useful. It's easy to see why it's tempting. To wit:
"One word for the flaming chocolate-pretzel semifreddo with Calvados foam, ignited tableside with the pastry chef's own Zippo: meh."
"My review of Katy Perry's new single, new video, new album, last album, last three albums, whole body of work, love life, entire career, and whole thing is as follows: meh."
See, it's spectacularly effective in dampening any verve that comes before it. But if you use it in writing these days, you are exposing yourself as one whose writing is, well, what's the word? That's right- uninspired.
Not everyone with a beard is a hipster. Not everyone who (shudder) tries to be cool is a hipster. Not everyone who buys used clothing is a hipster. Not everyone is a fucking hipster, period, so let's stop describing everyone as such. In fact, let's take a hard look at our own tastes and remember the Dylan Thomas quote: "An alcoholic is someone you don't like who drinks as much as you do."
Creative, as a noun:
According to the reference books I own, this is technically correct, though my dictionary lists this use as "informal." Out of curiosity, I would like to go back to older dictionaries- has this always been the case? Maybe the Oxford University Press just gave up, realizing it was losing a was of attrition? Either way, this use drives me bats, like when someone refers to married couples as "marrieds" or when some Lundbergian middle-manager "dialogues" with his "team." When I hear that "there are a lot of creatives in my building" or "I help creatives identify and live their dreams!" it makes me cringe. Maybe I'm the only one who's noticed, but hopefully now you will, and you can cringe, too!
Just like "dialogue" as a verb, this one has a very corporate stink on it. But it's mainstream now, and it has lost what was once unique about it. Now it is synonymous with "get in touch with," which has over-casualized it:
"I'll reach out to Willie and see whether he has time to do your lawn tomorrow."
We can just give Willie a quick call. Let's leave the reaching out to the distraught and heartbroken friends that call at 3 am. Or to the alcoholic with three sober years under his belt, who calls his sponsor knowing that she's the only thing standing between him and a double vodka rocks. I picture someone teetering on a high ledge, looking to his friend for help, when I think of this phrase. It demands a little respect and gravity, as it is tinged with urgency and even a little desperation. In short, it deserves to be much more than another way to say "email."
Literally: the give that keeps on giving
Yes, we have complained ad nauseum about the blatant misuse of the word ("The cop was literally grilling me on the side of the road."), so let's talk about its overuse.
When deployed correctly, the word clarifies a sentence by pointing out that the part that was very likely to have been interpreted as symbolic was, in fact, what really happened:
You: "Man, I walked into a shitstorm this morning at work"
Your friend: "What, someone moved your boss's Tim Tebow bobblehead again?"
Obviously your friend thinks you walked into a symbolic shitstorm- which you probably did. But consider it this way:
You: "Man, I walked into a shitstorm- literally- this morning at work."
Your friend: "Is that why you had to go to the Y and shower instead of meeting me at Five Guys?"
See? Crystal clear.
But now it's used as some kind of intensifier, when it is not needed at all. "I was literally waiting for an hour at the DMV..." Well, of course you were literally waiting for an hour- no one thought you were using "an hour" symbolically. Now, if you took a number at the DMV and it wasn't called until you'd languished in their waiting area for 52 weeks, then you might want to tell your friends that you were "literally waiting for a year-" that way they'll know why you missed all their birthdays. So next time you are telling your friend that it was hot out- literally 90 degrees- just spare her the literally. I bet she believes you already.
This twee little saying is rampant on social media. Situation: your friend finds a rare video of her favorite band, in unique garb, singing a cover of her favorite song while eating her favorite dessert. So she posts a link and writes "Goo Goo Dolls in drag singing Total Eclipse of the Heart while eating Dippin' Dots? Yes, please." Also, let's stop posting photos and videos and captioning them with "This."
The overportmanteauization of everything
Portmanteau words are useful, and sometimes they are funny and useful, and sometimes they just work- even the new ones. Like frenemy. I love this word because it really nails it; after all, who doesn't have a friend that they hate? But it also works because the vowel sound in friend is the same at the vowel sound in the first syllable of enemy. Perfect!
I just read this one the other day, and it represents our love for alloyed words as well as the current state of overzealous and overshared professional parenting: mompetition. Brilliant. Here it is, deployed: Economists estimate that mompetition will push spending on child yoga pants and ukelele lessons to nearly $120 billion- in California alone.
These are two new, good ones. But before you just mash two words together, please think about it. Once my wife came into my work with a good friend of hers who is (I guess obviously) gay, and a coworker of mine asked me whether he was her gusband- gay husband. What?! You can't just stick the first letter of "gay" onto any old word and expect it to be understood! Gusband could mean "goose-husband" or gastroenterologist-husband." To all would-be word-mashers out there: do you understand why gaydar works and gusband does not? If not, please email me for further clarification.
I am reading No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald's book about Edward Snowden, and I came up with a new word- I thought. After consulting the omniscient internet, though, I realized that I am about as original as people who say "Vegas, bay-bee!" The word is traitriot, and it's pretty timely, here in the day of Snowden and Chelsea B. Manning. Maybe history will define them as traitors or as patriots, but until there is a general consensus on their status in this country, let us capture the controversy in one word: traitriot.
I love language, and some of this stuff really does drive me mildly- mildly- nuts. But I love this language, and I don't mean to make it seem like all I find in it is stuff to complain about- or should that be "stuff about which to complain? So, to end on a positive note, there is one trend that I really like right now, and that's when writers (bloggers, usually) put a lone exclamation point in parentheses to highlight a point which needs attention, but is not the main point of the sentence. It works like this:
Floyd Mayweather was late to dinner because he left his iPhone in one of his 200 (!) pairs of jeans.
1 Black Friday is also "beyond annoying-" literally- in that it has passed though that realm and emerged, rather impressively, as a pithy phrase representing the very worst of our nation. That, if you think about it, is a pretty impressive second act.