Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Guest Author John Walters: Buzz Words, Saving the English Language from the Human Race

By John Walters

Using the right word is so important in writing that it's not uncommon to get stuck on single line, looking for the perfect word to say what you mean. Which is probably why hearing the wrong use of a word drives us so nuts. (two that make me crazy: decimate and peruse) John Walters joins us today to talk about a few other words that make writers cringe.

Take it away John...

It can be difficult to accept, but we have no individual ownership over some of the ideas that we treasure most; rather they belong to the popular consciousness and shifting sea of public opinion.The Confederate Flag has many meanings to many people, but regardless of what it stood for originally, its modern definition is determined by its place in the minds of modern people.

As it is with symbols, so it is with words. To my horror, popular usage has begun to suck many precise, useful, wonderful words into the realm of the nebulous, hackneyed and useless. In aggressive terms, stupid people are unwittingly dragging our language down with them. In an effort to stem this dismal tide, here is a list of words being fought for currently. Some are all but lost, and some are still just a few hundred thousand unsolicited corrections away from being redeemed. If you love language, please consider taking up arms in the struggle to ensure that words say as much as possible.

Blatant is one of the words that has been all but consigned to utter meaninglessness. One of my college professors considered it so degraded that she forbid her students from using it at all. Most people use blatant to express any known fact and express extremity, dropping lines like “Jack blatantly avoids Sarah.” Reading the previous sentence again with the word “blatant” removed reveals almost no change in meaning at all. The intended meaning the word is to reveal actions that are conspicuously undisguised.

A bank robber apprehended by fifty police in the middle of a bank vault was probably not blatantly attempting to rob the bank. However when Larry Flynt rented a newsstand for five minutes for the purpose of personally selling a copy of his censored magazine and therefore being arrested, his crime was blatant. No matter how unconvincingly a World Cup Soccer player falls the ground wailing in agony with hopes of drawing a stoppage in play or penalty against his opponent, no such act can ever be considered blatant. When a fellow soccer player tires of this annoying display, abandons any hope of continuing in the game for the sake of savagely kicking the faker repeatedly, his act was blatant.

The usage of literally makes me suspect language is under attack from a coordinated worldwide conspiracy. It’s perhaps the only word that is commonly used in direct contradiction to its actual meaning. This word is intended to reveal a complete lack of exaggeration, but its most common usage is by blithering idiots making inane attempts at exaggeration. “The Crowd was so loud that roof literally flew off the arena!”

The misuse is so obvious (BUT NOT BLATANT) that the only possible justification for it is that people are thoughtlessly trying to imitate people who have used it correctly. They simply heard someone say “literally” for emphasis of a fact and assumed they could use it to emphasize a falsehood. Had these same people heard someone say, “It hurts so bad that I pink-monkey-dishwasher passed out,” they would go around crowbarring “pink-monkey-dishwasher” into every sentence they wanted to emphasize. All I can say to save this word is aggressive confrontation. So the next time someone tells you they had so much homework last Tuesday that they “literally died,” either call them a liar or literally attempt to drive a stake through their heart.

Ironic is perhaps the most important word to have its meaning dragged towards uselessness. It is wonderfully precise and useful, but unfortunately these qualities are under attack. Irony is a result in contradiction or mockery of the expected result. This is not to be misconstrued with any coincidence that happens down the pipe.

If Joe Popaloski the Electrician fixes the wiring in Joe Popaloski the Plumber’s house, nothing ironic has occurred (coincidentally they have the same name). However if Joe the Electrician fixes Joe the Plumber’s toilet, then irony is making an appearance. People have warped “irony” to associate it with long odds or even just plain unfortunate events. Alanis Morissette even had the literary apathy to say “It’s a death row pardon, two minutes too late,” essentially proclaiming it’s ironic every time someone is tardy. Actually, Morissette’s Ironic is wonderfully instructive about what irony isn’t. A black fly has no aversion to wine (quite the opposite), wedding days have never earned any special reprieve from rain, and a ninety-eight year old man dying under any circumstances is no contradiction to anyone’s expectations.

One of the very real sources of magic in the world is languages' ability to transport one person into the perspective of another, conveying attitudes, emotions and some of the most elusive moments of our lives into a form that can be captured and stored. But this magic is dependent on the effectiveness and precision of our language! So the next time you feel tempted to submit an unsolicited correction on behalf of verbal precision, I hope your fear of social awkwardness is overwhelmed by your desire to strike a blow for the wonderful world of communication.

John Walters writes and blogs on dating, relationships, and online dating for www.onlinedatingsites.net.


  1. Awww, I like these words!!! They should not be lost in the mists of time!

  2. As much as I love Alanis Morisette, I agree that the "Ironic" song isn't ironic at all. I heard a radio dj say it should have been called "Isn't it a bummer."

  3. In the '90s movie "Reality Bites," Winona Ryder's character is questioned by an editor whether she knows the real meaning of irony, or if she just dismissed things as ironic without knowing it. She had to look it up in a dictionary.

  4. Great post, and lovely use of examples to support your points.

    But sir, please *proofread*! My goodness.

    It happens to the best of us, of course.

  5. One of the things I love about `Castle' is the way he kept calling people out on their use of `ironic' in the first season.

    I know someone who uses `literally' as a place-holder, the way other people use `um'.

  6. My all-time favorite discussion of irony happens in the Futurama episode "The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings." There's a running gag where the Robot Devil keeps declaring things to be ironic and Bender keeps correcting him ("That's not irony, it's just coincidental!" "That's not ironic, it's just mean!") until the climax, when Bender sees the big reveal and sings (sings! it's opera!) "The use of words expressing something other than their literal intention / Now that *is* irony!"

    (The episode also features some succinct writing advice when the Robot Devil yells, "Your lyrics lack subtility! You can't just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!")