Michael F. Duggan
At one level or another, every wordsmith is a curmudgeon about usage. I will leave it to others to determine whether or not I qualify as a wordsmith, but it is certainly not beyond me to be a curmudgeon on some topics. There are people who can discourse at length about why the Webster’s International Dictionary 2nd ed. is superior to previous and subsequent editions, or why the Elements of Style is “The Bible.” More generally everybody who writes or reads has favorite and least favorite words and preferred/least preferred usage. Similarly, some of us have words and usages that are fine in some contexts but insufferable in others.
There are pretentious neologisms, self-consciously trendy or generational hangnails, unnecessarily technical social science or other academic jargon that has crept into the public sphere (don’t get me started about Derrida and Heidegger), and the overuse and therefore the tweaking of existing words. Below is a partial list of words and phrases that appeal to me in a similar sense as fingernails on a chalkboard. This posting is written in a tone of faux smugness/priggishness and is not intended to be mean, so please do not take it to heart if you have ever run afoul of any of the offending terms. Below that is a slightly hysterical rant/grouse/essay I wrote a year or two ago about the recent appropriation of the word “hipster.”
Enjoy (if that’s the right word).
- All you need to know about… Click bait for people who want to know the bullet points on a popular or topical issue.
- Begs the question. This is a term correctly used in logic and forensics to describe an argument or reply that avoids addressing or answering the issue at hand. Today you will likely hear it on the news meaning something like “suggests,” “poses,” or “implies the question…” as in the statement: “The result of today’s election begs the question of whether the nation is suffering from mass psychosis.”
- Cool. A ubiquitous, burned out synonym for “good” or “desirable” in a context of modern pop culture conformity. A popular term of reverse snobbery indicating approval and therefore social acceptance among “cool” people (including the speaker) that is mostly identical to the post-1990s use of the world “hip” (see rant below). Like “hip,” it was once a rebellions alternative to older terms of approval. Unless I am describing to a day below 60 degrees, soup that has sat around too long, or a certain kind of modern jazz, I am attempting—mostly unsuccessfully—to wean myself off of this insipid, reflexive word. It is still preferable (and more durable) than the more dated groovy.
- DMV. Local Madison Avenue-esque abbreviation for the “District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia” region. I think of it as representing the “Department of Motor Vehicles.” If I ever become hip (modern usage) enough to voluntarily use this term, I hope that I will be struck by a large Motor Vehicle immediately thereafter.
- Fetishize. Verb form of fetish—to make something the object of a fetish. To abnormally or inappropriately ascribe more importance or interest to a thing than is necessary or deserved. Fetishize is commonly used by people who fetishize words like “fetishize.”
- Icon/Iconic. Perfectly good words in traditional usages (e.g. medieval religious portraiture). In the modern popular and corporate media, the new meaning is something like “A thing or person once fresh, original, and important, now reduced to an instantly recognizable cliché or a symbol mostly drained of any content, substance, or meaning.”
- I’m a survivor. A perfectly good term, but only if volunteered modestly (i.e. not as a boast) and if the user has survived a cataclysmic event.
- Juxtaposition. Use sparingly. Otherwise it suffers from some of the complaints against “paradigm.”
- Narrative. A term borrowed from literary criticism and academic history meaning a particular ideological or personal explanation or interpretation. Often used to disparage an interpretation by implying a self-serving, or subjective account (or that there are no “objective” accounts). Instead of “narrative,” I prefer “interpretation” as a more neutral alternative. Explanations should be examined for their truth content and not dismissed solely because of an implied perspective or the implicit state of mind of the narrator (an error of analysis known as psychologism).
- No worries. This term obviously means “Don’t worry about it” or “No big deal/problem.” Appropriated from the Aussies around or just before the turn of the twenty-first century. Do not use unless you are Australian and only if followed by “mate.”
- Paradigm/Paradigm Shift/Paradigmatic. A term that crept out of the philosophy of science of Thomas Kuhn (and a variation on ideas of Karl Popper and others). A favorite word of hack academics and others trying to sound smart (see “juxtaposition”). Outside of very specific academic usage, one should probably avoid this word altogether (and even when writing technically, “frame” or “framework” are less pretentious and distracting). If a person puts a gun to your head and commands you to use the adjective form, try “paradigmic” instead. I don’t know whether or not it is a real word, but it is still better than “paradigmatic,” arguably the most offensive word in modern English. And you might help start a trend for others under similar duress.
- Privileged/Privilege. A term and variations that are useful for instilling guilt-on-demand in rich liberals, provoke an embarrassing, ham-handed defensive response from “the haves” in general, or used simply as a mild veiled threat of the possibility of all-out class warfare (thank goodness for the “privilege”of the Roosevelts, and John and Robert Kennedy). It is not clear how or to what degree this term applies to unemployed white autoworkers, the dozens of daily opioid overdoses in places like Huntington, WV or Pottsville, PA, recent college grads with few employment prospects above the introductory level of the fast food service industry, or the downwardly-mobile former working middle class in general. It is wise to tread lightly around this divisive term in times when national unity is scarce. The party that used identity as a basis for strategy did not fare well in 2016. OF course it is always best not to reduce people to generalized categories of race and sex. Most Americans are “privileged” by world standards, so this term can easily be turned against almost anyone who uses it in this country.
- Reach[ing/ed] out to… Just call the guy; reaching out to him doesn’t make you a better person any more than a person who has “passed away” is any less dead than someone who has simply died.
- So… A horrible word when said slowly and pronounced “Sooo…” at the beginning of a spoken paragraph or conversation. An introductory pause word common among people born after 1965. A person who uses “So…” this way throughout all but the shortest of conversations can make some listeners from previous generations want to throw a heavy object at the nearest wall.
- Spiritual/Spirituality. A word commonly (and confidently) thrown down as a solemn trump card in discussions on metaphysics but which means nothing more than a vaguer form of “religiosity” without a commitment to specific beliefs. An ill-defined projection of a speaker’s personality into the realm of metaphysics. The result of one who wants to believe in something otherworldly when exiting belief systems are found wanting or are unacceptable whole cloth. An imprecise word whose imprecision gives it a false authority or gravitas when any number of more precise words from philosophy, psychology, or theology would suffice (e.g. animism, cosmology, deism, epiphany, exaltation, inspiration, pantheism, paganism, theism, transcendentalism, and the names of specific religions, etc.). Although the definition of words is seldom important in good faith critical discussion, one should always ask for a concise definition of spirituality whenever it comes up in conversation. Note: there may be a narrow context or range of usage where this word is appropriate, such as referring to a priest or minister as a spiritual advisor.
- Talk About. A favorite, if inarticulate, invitation of radio and television interviewers with insufficient knowledge or information to ask actual questions, thus allowing interviewees to pin things in a way that is favorable to them.
- Technocrat. The problem with this term is that like “hipster” (again, see below), it has two related but substantially different meanings. To those under 40, it typically refers to a person belonging to technical or technological elite who are blind to all but technological solutions to all of the nation’s and the world’s problems. As such it is a perfectly good–if overused–term of derision against an arrogant class. The issue I have is that there is an older definition meaning simply a specialized public servant. If Benjamin Cohen, Thomas Corcoran, Harry Hopkins, Harold Ickes, George F. Kennan, John McCloy, George C. Marshall, and Frances Perkins are “technocrats,” then I have nothing but admiration for many people covered by this older usage.
- Text. A noun meaning a work or a portion of writing by a given author. It is pretentious as hell, and I believe an inaccurate word. Human beings do not read text; we read language.
- Thinking outside of the box. An inspirational “inside the box” cliche expressing a good idea: not being bound by a an limiting conventionalist framework (or, in the narrow and correct usage in science/philosophy of science, a paradigm). Science progresses by advancing to a point where it smashes the existing frame (e.g. Relativity superseding the Newtonian edifice in the early twentieth-century). Ironically, this term is often used by conventionalist businessmen/women who somehow think of themselves as mavericks and innovators.
- To be sure. A common infraction among even important historians and social commentators when conceding a point they consider to be unimportant to their overall argument (usually at the start of a paragraph). It was fine in Britain 100-150 years ago, but is hard to stomach today because of severe overuse. Consider instead: “Admittedly,” “Certainly,” “Of course,” “Albeit” (sparingly), and other shorter and less pretentious terms.
- Trope. An okay word that is overused.
- You’re very welcome. A mirror reply to “Thank you very much.” Common among people under 40, it may be used earnestly, reflexively, or to mock what the young perceive to be the pretentious hyperbole of older people who have the unmitigated gall to add the intensifier “very” when a simple “thank you” or even “thanks ” would suffice. Even in a time when “very” is very much overused, one should take any sincere variation of “thank you” for how it was intended—as a gift of civility and etiquette freely offered—and a mocking or mildly sarcastic reply of “you’re very welcome” is at least as smug as this blog posting.
Finally, there is a much-maligned word that I would like to resurrect or at least defend: Interesting. If used as a vague and non-committal non-description, it should be avoided unless one is forced into using it (e.g. when one is compelled by circumstances to proffer an opinion when one does not like something; in this capacity, the use of this word never fools anybody). However, for people who like ideas and appreciate the power and originality of important concepts, “interesting ” can be used as an understated superlative—a quiet compliment that opens a door to further explanation and elaboration.
Essay: On the Hip and Hipsters
Present rant triggered by a routine stop at a coffee shop.
I appreciate that language evolves, that the meanings of words change, emerge, disappear, diverge, procreate, amalgamate, splinter-off, become obscure, and overshadow older meanings, especially in times of rapid change. I am less sanguine about words that seem to be appropriated (and yes, I know that one cannot “steal” a word) from former meanings that still have more texture, resonance, authenticity, and historical context for me.
For example over the past decade (1990s?) the word “hipster” has taken on a new—in some ways inverse—but not unrelated meaning to the original. The original meaning (to my knowledge) of “hipster” was a late 1930s-1950s blue collar drifter, an attempted societal drop-out, a modernist cousin of romantic hero, and borderline antisocial type, who shunned the “phoniness” of mainstream life and commercial mass culture and trends and listened to authentic (read: African-American) jazz—bebop—(think of Dean Moriarty from On the Road).
He/she was “hip” (presumably an offshoot of 1920s “hep”)—clued-in, disillusioned—to what was really going on in the world behind the facades and appearances (and not today’s idea of “hip” as being in touch with current trends—an important distinction). The hipster presaged the beat of the later 1950s who was more cerebral, contrived, literary, and urban. In the movies, the male of the hipster genera might have been played by John Garfield or Robert Mitchum. In real life, Jackson Pollock will suffice as a representative example. Hipsters were typically flawed individuals and were often irresponsible and failures as family people. But at least there was something authentic about them.
By contrast, today’s “hipster” seems to be self-consciously affected right down to the point of his goateed chin: consciously urban (often living in newly gentrified neighborhoods) consciously fashionable and ahead of the pack, dismissive of non-hipsters (and quiet about his/her middle-to-upper-middle class upbringing in the ‘burbs and an ongoing childhood once centered around play dates), a conformist to his generational dictates. Today’s hipster embodies the calculation and trendiness that the original hipsters stood against (they were noticed, not self-promoted).
I realize that this might sound like a “kids these days” grouse or reduction—and I hope it is not; upon the backs of the rising generation ride the hopes for the future of the nation, species, and the world. I have known many young people–interns and students–the great majority of whom are intelligent, serious, thoughtful, and oriented toward problem solving and social justice. There seems to be a strong current toward rejecting the trends of previous generations among them. The young people these days have every right to be mad at what previous generations have done to the economy and the environment and perhaps the hipsters among them will morph into something along the lines of their earlier namesake or something considerably better.
If not, then it is likely that the word will continue to have a double meaning as the original becomes increasingly obscure or until another generation takes it up as its own.