Words I love to hate

Dec 21 2012 07:25
* Mandi Smallhorne
THE Atlantic’s Jen Doll has come up with a list of words that set her teeth on edge in 2012.

I found it a rather puzzling list "quinoa", that harmless grain? "twee" really?), and preferred The Economist’s response to it, which takes issue with "meme", "aggravate" (“in the sense of ‘annoy’, rather than in its true meaning of ‘worsen' ") and the non-scientific use of DNA: “Why on earth does a designer brand such as Bulgari or Dior have to ‘remain true to its DNA’?”

The Economist also offers my greatest biz-jargon bugbear: "going forward".  If I could banish one phrase in 2013, this would be it. What other way could you be going, I ask myself – sideways? Backwards?

But Doll is right: we all use some buzzwords with panache while others just (ha!) aggravate us. For years now, I have found myself cringing when I hear people use "hectic" (a useful word which should mean "full of frantic activity", or alternatively, "feverish", as in “A hectic red stained her cheek”).

Poor old hectic has come to mean something as general as the much-abused "awesome", which once meant "inspiring awe"): “We went to the pub after work, it was, like, hectic.” A similar dilution has affected "epic" and "historic": surely every last endeavour can’t be epic? “In an epic effort, he finished the sales figures overnight.”

How Beowulfian. Nice to feel that your battle with the calculator is as meaningful as slaying dragons. Although I’m sure that a Wagnerian amount of beer is quaffed by our hero at his local franchise pub the next evening...

I have a longstanding beef with the way "whitewash" is used in sport. The term means "to cover up": “He whitewashed the president’s past through effective spindoctoring.” But in sport, it’s used for a comprehensive win: “It was a complete whitewash for the Proteas.”

I must have heard it used this way a zillion times by now, but I still have to translate it in my head: that means the Proteas did WELL.

The fact that everyone else doesn’t suffer as I do from the mangling of whitewash’s meaning is evidence of the flexibility of language, and how rapidly usage can change.

A word or phrase that sounds bizarre when first used – “level with me” was a daring piece of slang coined in the Jazz Age, for example – soon becomes common currency. (Some other phrases first used back then: “lay off”, “what’s eating you?”, “beef” as I’ve used it above, meaning complaint, and “for crying out loud”.)

Some business jargon just sticks in my craw, however: "best of breed", for instance. I’ve worked with articles about prize dogs too much, perhaps, but it just sounds so... organic, earthy, reproductive? It makes me squirm.

"Drill down" is another phrase with too many connotations for my liking. And "impacted" – ask any healthcare professional how they feel about that word, which medically applies to teeth and the far end of the digestive system. A ghostly whiff of decay and antiseptic invades my nostrils whenever I hear "impacted".

From the ridiculous to the sublime, there’s "reach out to": “We reached out to Nkabinde and Associates”. This sounds way too much like a call to the altar or a séance – why on earth not simply say "contacted" or "called"?

And "cascade": “Please cascade this down to your staff.” The picture of Angel Falls in Venezuela comes to mind. Why not just tell or communicate? And hope that they don’t go home with"take-aways" or "learnings" from your "cascade".

Aaargh. Maybe they’ll understand your "ask" and "man-up" to the task (an "ask" that's rather tough on the female staff, one feels). If not, well, your "bad". If you had used (instead of "utilised") simpler and less polysyllabic language, they might have gained a clearer understanding, perhaps?

Ah, well, "at the end of the day", as we say when we are in serious need of a little linguistic punctuation – a term I apply to phrases we use when we just need to keep our mouths flapping for a while (waiting for our brains to catch up), "it is what it is".

My "spend" for indulgence at holiday time is limited, so take this little idle ramble through jargon as my "gifting" to you. (Oh, lord, it hurts even to type that word!)

Have yourself an "unprecedented", "unique", "epic", "iconic" festive season.

- Fin24

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.


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