My first thought on today’s WP question is that if I ruled the world and had linguistic omnipotence, I would never presume to ban any words from general usage, even if they are words that I don’t like or that have the potential to offend someone (in English or another language). Banning a word leads to banning speech and books and it becomes a slippery slope. I would let collective “wisdom” – for lack of a better term – sort out what words are the best tools for the age.
That’s not to say there aren’t words and phrases that annoy me, sometimes because they are repeated ad nauseum and lose their impact or their original meaning altogether.
English words and phrases that bug me generally fall into two camps that can produce weak communication. They are either hyperbolic expressions and superlatives that are meant to evoke concern, yet can be repeated so often as to lose their power, or they are non-committal expressions known as “hedge words” or filler words that when overused, can soften or disempower a discourse.
I’m pretty sure I use these kinds of words a lot. 🙂 When used judiciously, hyperbole is needed to (dis)agree emphatically with someone. Hedge words are essential to round the corners of polite conversation and to express doubt or nuance, to buy time, or to distinguish between facts and claims. Overuse and misuse are what annoy me.
One word that falls into the hyperbole camp, and is still in robust circulation in the news, is unprecedented. I started hearing and seeing this word pop up when the 45th President of the United States assumed the title. At first, I was on board with this one. In the five years since 45, many dreadful things have happened, and some positive barriers have been broken, too. In order to bring attention to these events, the news media reach further afield to find words that promote a sense of urgency, and unprecedented is a current favorite. I think it’s time to change things up, however.
The result of repeatedly hearing this word, and others that push the stress button, is eventually, the audience can become exhausted and jaded.
In the hedge word camp, there are many that creep into almost everyone’s speech and sometimes into writing. In casual speech, I’m guilty of using “like” and “sort of.” My problem may be due to regional influences, as I come from California, where these two are commonly said. Both expressions can be so overused as to become tics. I sometimes listen to people’s speech (including my own) for verbal tics.
Another one that I say and hear frequently is “honestly,” as in, “I honestly don’t know why he said that.” In this case, “honestly” is like some other hedge words that have an underlying meaning. The speaker isn’t entreating the listener to believe he is honest; rather, he’s expressing exasperation. I like this one, and it has for me a kind of “mom” veneer. I can’t imagine a teenager saying this.
This prompt was a fun one. Language presents all kinds of fascinating puzzles.
Before I sign off, I’ll share some origami cranes I made this week using lush papers from my shopping in Tokyo. Cranes are a classic symbol of longevity and peace in Japan. I will soon drop a post or two more about the trip, and perhaps answer another random prompt. Until then, be well.