Posts Tagged ‘words we hate’

Words came in, marked for death…


#tnyquestion From the Culture Desk of The New Yorker – the English words everyone hates.  Which ones do you loathe?

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Last Friday, we débuted “Questioningly,” a Twitter-based game show. In the first installment, we asked readers to propose a single English word that should be eliminated from the language.  Suggestions were made via Facebook or Twitter, with the hashtag #tnyquestion.  We started the contest with high hopes that readers would help to streamline the language, but the first wave of responses was not auspicious.  One of the earliest words proposed was “Obama,” and then a little while later, “Washington.”  But we were committed to a lexical purge rather than an electoral one. We moved on.
The nominations piled up, in the hundreds and then the thousands.  People who like words, as it turns out, also hate words.  Superfluous adverbs took a beating: people unloaded on “literally” and “actually.”  One woman challenged anyone to think of a case in which a deleted “actually” changed the meaning of the sentence. But there’s reason and then there’s rhythm, and “actually” is actually useful as a useless dactyl.  Other entries were conceptual: a number of readers wondered if eliminating “hate” would eliminate hate.  We checked. It would not.  (Nor would “war.”)Words came in, marked for death.  Popular objects of dissatisfaction included “awesome” and “epic” (pointlessly inflationary), “phlegm” and “fecund” (pointedly ugly), “bling” and “swag” (self-conscious slanguage), “impacted” and “efforting” (boardroom blather), “like” and “but” (only ever taking up space), and “irregardless” and “inflammable” (are they even words?).  That was how the pack travelled, in the main.
Other readers struck out on their own.  A defense lawyer wanted “guilty” gone.  One man wanted to get rid of “deceptively” because, he said, “it lacks meaning.”  (Really? But it has, like, a definition.)  A few people nominated “the f-word,” though we were uncertain if they meant the word “fuck” (unacceptable: you need it if you stub a toe, not to mention for other anatomical purposes) or the euphemism (in which case we’re O.K. with ditching it: we prefer “eff”).  The sportswriter Rick Reilly (@ReillyRick) spread the word to his Twitter followers, several of whom wished to scrub “Tebowing” from the language.  Those people will have to hold their horses; if we can’t eliminate the person a word is based on, we’re not going to eliminate the word (cf. “Kardashian”).  The comedian Todd Barry (@toddbarry) had the idea to do away with one of mainstay of language: “Not a big ‘the’ fan.” The axe also came down on “trendy” and “stupid,” “pretentious” and “phenomenology,” “new” and “right” and “nice.”  It seemed as though if we lined up all the words people hated, there might be no words left. In the end, there was a runaway un-favorite: “moist.”  People, particularly women, evidently prefer aridity.  We’re not the first people to document this widespread aversion. Jesse Sheidlower (@JesseSheidlower), the Editor at Large of the Oxford English Dictionary and a spirit-consultant for the competition—by that, we mean that we told him about it, and drew strength from him as we conducted it—pointed out that it’s been written about widely, and he’s right: Ben Zimmer posted a piece about anti-moist forces at the Visual Thesaurus.  But without “moist,” how would bakers, meteorologists, and amateur pornographers describe slight wetness?  It would also require partial redaction of Nestor’s speech in “Troilus and Cressida” (“bounding between the two moist elements…”).  Though the people spoke and we heard them, we will not cast out “moist.” But that left thousands more candidates, some of which we’ve identified above, many of which we’d be happy to put on ice forever.  Because this wasn’t a referendum, we looked for suggestions with a certain ineffable precision: the scalpel rather than the sledgehammer. Seth Kaplan (@KaplanSJ) suggested “comorbid,” which he argued is the ugliest word in the language.  He’s right, and he receives an honorable mention.  Matt Buchanan (@MattBuchanan), of Buzzfeed, constructed an elegant, powerful argument for the permanent obliteration of “pivot” (complete with an illustration that looks as though it was made by a bored second-grader); he also receives an honorable mention. In the end, though, we zeroed in on a set of suggestions that sought to update the language of everyday fashion.  It wasn’t something we had considered until it was mentioned; then it seemed obvious, even inevitable.  They took aim, mainly, at a pair of words for a pair of pants, “trousers” and “slacks,” proposing that they had overstayed their welcome. After a protracted backroom session—arguments were impactful on both sides of the issue—we settled on slacks, which was suggested by multiple entrants, but first suggested by @Nemesisn4sa.  Her prize?  Mary Norris, of the magazine’s venerable copy department, will write “slacks” on a piece of paper, crumple it, and throw it away, after which we will attempt to pry the Palomino Blackwing pencil from Mary’s hand and mail it to @Nemesisn4sa. We will also ban the word from for a period of one week. See you Friday for the next installment of Questioningly. Until then, tweet responsibly. Photograph by CinemaPhoto/Corbis.