As my man Mark Twain observed in an 1888 letter:
The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
These days, I’d settle for words that are close in public discourse, as long as they’re susceptible to some kind of consistent interpretation.
A shade over six years ago, I posted a six-part series on grammar and usage felonies—at least from the point of view of someone who learned such things at the hands of the Sisters of the Holy Cross and the Jesuits. (I attended public high school in between, where I had the good fortune to have Miss Inez Woesner teach me literature. A genteel Carolinian who somehow found her way to the Northwest, she introduced me to Faulkner and a load of other Southerners who’d elevated language in print to high lyrical art.)
I was highly motivated at the time because our Malaprop-in-Chief was in full cry, midway through his second term. Another campaign season is upon us, with its truckloads of spew from consultants and pundits whose last priority is saying anything at all meaningful. This compels me to put on the gloves again. Thus: “Our Flabby Language VII.”
(NOTE: I’ve reprised a few from that last exercise, for two reasons. One, they persist. Two, they still deserve to be stopped, by any means necessary.)
Here they are, the offending articles:
“Amount/Number.” That which is measured by unit is numbered; that which is measured by volume is—er—amounted. Individuals collected into people are a “number;” folks don’t come in “amounts.” (“I’d like six cubic yards of people, please.”)
“Analytics.” Another all-purpose MBA noun, this is typically used—as far as I can tell—to describe a type or system of analysis about which the utterer has no clue. (See “Metrics,” below.)
“Battleground.” An adjective modifying “state” or “states” used by newsreaders and pundits to refer to those in which the electoral votes for president are up for grabs. Though plenty of other more descriptive modifiers are available—“contested;” “in-play;” “swing;” “toss-up;” and “up for grabs;” to name a few—it is an article of faith in the campaign media to use words evocative of violent conflict. (Better ratings, you see.)
“Curate.” Remember when “curate” and “curator” applied only to objects and folks in museums and art galleries? Not any more; apparently anyone who has possessions that occasionally come to eye or hand qualifies. “Behold—I must curate my sock drawer.”
“Divvy.” Supposedly intelligent adults (like our veteran local political columnist) use this, with “up,” instead of “divide.” Why? Where’s the economy? Just stop, please—or there will be no graham crackers and milk for you at nap time!
“Fantastical.” How is this term in any way distinguishable from “fantastic?” Their definitions are identical. By contrast, “historic” and “historical” are not interchangeable; historic means important or significant, and historical means pertaining to history. I dislike the word because, to me, it falls awkwardly into the ear—which is nowhere near fantastic.
“Fix.” The über-verb suitable for every occasion—especially political campaigning—that poses neither risk of mispronunciation nor possibility of misinterpretation, because it is utterly meaningless in context. Its value is at least doubled when coupled with an equally opaque object: “Vote for me and I’ll fix that mess in Washington.” A local legislative candidate’s signs proclaim him voteworthy because he’ll “fix the Assembly.” Given recent history, it’s a meaningful phrase if you’re running for office in Illinois or Louisiana; elsewhere, not so much.
“Granular.” Here are the three definitions of the word:
- Composed or appearing to be composed of granules or grains.
- Having a grainy texture.
- Biology – Containing granules
As nearly as I can tell, what the doofi (plural of doofus) who use this word without benefit of agricultural implement or lab coat are referring to is an thing or status at its most basic or irreducible level. Besides confused, I remain unimpressed.
“Islamist.” What in the name of all that is holy is this supposed to mean? Are “Coalition of the Willing” troops who aren’t Jewish “Christists?” (As matters have developed, “Crusaders” is probably apt.) Was Timothy McVeigh a “Christian” terrorist bomber? Instead of slandering a perfectly good religion and the vast majority of its believers who understand that it decries violence, why don’t we just call everyone in the region who doesn’t resemble or agree with us “wogs” or “infidels,” like our imperial forebears, and have done with it? At least they might be less likely to attack our embassies.
“Metrics.” We all know what a “meter,” as a unit of measurement, and the “metric system” are, despite our continued resistance toward adopting that simpler but socialist system, right? Then how did this bogus noun become a substitute for any kind of measurement, tangible or intangible? There’s a flag on the play; 13.716 meters for unnecessary vagueness.
“Organic.” At its most generous, the definitions of this word pertain to deriving from or being a part of a biological or naturally-occurring system. As we all know too well, it’s being used to refer to foodstuffs that may or may not be purer or less toxic than others. That’s confusing enough. Come now the talking heads, who don’t think that “basic” or “fundamental” is impressive enough, even if clear. Knock it off, (Naturally Occurring Substance)-for-Brains!
“Pivot.” Here come the Nation’s natterers again, who sniff at perfectly good active verbs like “change,” or “redirect” in favor of a precise noun that has more engineering or basketball significance. Even outside those contexts, its meaning is closer to central or crucial, as in “pivotal,” rather than a quarter-turn to the left or right. “I pivot, therefore, I am.” Oh, please…
“Presumptive.” As in, “…presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney…” Mitt Romney may have been and may yet be presumptive (especially about tax returns), but it was the media who presumed—well in advance of any conclusive balloting, and presumably for our benefit—that he would be the nominee. (Maybe they used the former on purpose, so it’d be harder for us to trace the presumption back to them, their rank speculation, and their insufferable polls.) While we’re on the subject, the process is “democratic” on a bipartisan basis and the non-Democrat people are “Republican.” Why, then, do the GOP’s party and process remain “Republican” while the other side’s are referred to as “Democrat?”
“Preventative.” If being imitive is the sincerest form of flattery, this usage is very inventative. (I know; like the huffy NPR researcher who responded to my e-mail, you can produce a dictionary entry in support of either.) It’s a slippery slope, is my point. “Flammable” and “inflammable” are interchangeable, too; take pity on the poor, unsuspecting English language learner who’s used to dependabable language rules!
“Rainy day fund.” A stand-in for “surplus” or “reserve,” in the governmental budget context. What are we, 12? (See “Divvy,” above.)
Random inflation. Nouns and modifiers on steroids. “Atmosphere” has grown into “atmospherics;” “normal” has swollen to “normalcy;” “reason” is now “rationality,” and “dependence” has become “dependency.” (Ditto “competence” into “competency” and “residence” into “residency.”) “Delusional” is being elbowed aside by “delusionary.” To me, “amalgamation” is the act of throwing things together to make an amalgam, not a free substitute for that noun itself. How about “pretension” for “pretense,” wherein affectation or attitude becomes the state just before nervousness? Add these to the hod: “triumphalism” (for triumph), and “incentivization” (for incentive). In the subject-modifier arena: “fantastical” (for fantastic); and “historical” (for historic). (See above.) Here’s a winner: “fraudulence” (for fraud); this, from a venerated Los Angeles Times pundit. (“Others, maybe; not by me!” he hastened to add.) Sounds like a medical phrase for false farting to me.
To be continued in the next post, “Our Flabby Language VIII.” (Roman numerals add a nice patina of authority, don’t you think?) Meanwhile, pick a fight over any of my picks, or add any you find peevish, by leaving a comment below.