The Word to End All Words

Since this is a blog about writing and often reflects on how words are used, I could not resist this topic (especially since it is everywhere in the media just now). By now, many readers will be familiar the word heard round the world (i.e. Our president’s blunt descriptor of a couple individual countries and an entire continent during an immigration policy presentation). Some news outlets struggled with how to specify the term without breaking broadcasting rules or local ethics laws or mortally offending customers. NPR devoted a segment to the decision-making process for how they reported the word (at first without saying it). Reactions varied from outrage and condemnation to accusations of “excessive pearl-clutching.” More than one of the online comments on the various news stories wondered out loud “What is the big deal? Have people never heard this word before?”

The “big deal” in this situation is context. If you are an ordinary person standing in the grocery line with your six pack and smokes during your time off and you utter this word (perhaps to describe that other city from whence hails the rival sports team or maybe just the store itself), it has little consequence. If you deploy it in a meeting at your place of work to describe the office (particularly the bathroom), it might be okay, depending on who is present and the code of conduct in the workplace. However, for many workplaces, if you are using the referenced word to insult clients/patients/superiors/etc., you should be planning in the back of your head for how to fit your fan, photos, extra shoes, hoarded snacks, and pet rock into your car, because you aren’t coming back. The president’s utterance of the word at the given time and place more resembled usage in an office meeting than in the local supermarket. In my office, as a fellow cube-jockey, he would have been in the parking lot with a security gaurd at his elbow before he could finish the sentence.

To be fair to the president, he denies use of the specific word, though he concedes use of unspecified “tough language.” He also took the time to deny having said nasty things about one of the offended countries (though sparing no comment about the whole continent he dissed). His followers explain that he was frustrated by the quality of the proposal laid before him and expressed his concerns candidly in ordinary “kitchen table talk.” This defense weakens in light of the fact this was not a kitchen table or a locker room where he was speaking.

There is plenty written about the wider consequences of the time and place chosen for the utterance in question. I am more interested in the singular power of the word to bring the conversation to a halt. The user of a strong word signals by its introduction that all listening and consideration has come to an end and the recipients do indeed stop listening once it has been introduced. Thereafter, the post-mortem discussions will all be about the word and the user, not the substance of the meeting. The abrupt disintegration of the immigration conversation left pundits asking on the radio this afternoon,”But what does the president really want? That’s still unclear.” Given the president’s reported distaste for the content of the discussion, he was likely pleased with the general outcome. Residents of the disparaged continent (and former residents, such as myself and my spouse) did not take pleasure from the incident and, consequently, relations with that part of the world were weakened. Those of the president’s party who chose to express their own displeasure noted that the wording was “unhelpful,” which is true if the goal is to get to a viable policy solution (since the word has shut the process down at this point).

Let us return to the grocery line. I stood in such a line at a local supermarket once with a pair of young men in front of me and several families with children in parallel lines and behind me. The two men were conversing about a mundane topic but decorating their pauses with variations of a particularly potent four-letter invective, using it as teens in my era used the word “like.” Out of boredom and lack of interesting magazines to peruse, I measured the general frequency of use, finding the word present at least twice in every sentence.

The observed conversation led me to ruminate about the question of what these folks do when they are in genuine need of a nice strong exclamation. What do they say when they drop hammers on their toes (zounds? shazbot? dang?)? What do they say when they find out their roommate barfed on the bathroom floor and left the mess for others to clean up (blimy? goodness? jeepers? )? What about when they really want to tell someone (like the roommate who barfed) off? Go fly a kite? Curse words lose their snap with overuse, like a rubber band. Once robbed of their utility, they cannot be deployed to shut anything down, only to provoke laughter. Curse words, as noted above, also cause people to stop listening. I don’t recall what the young men in front of me were discussing because one word in various forms blocked it all out.

In my own writing, I avoid use of cursing, not because I am averse to using such words myself but because of the way they are generously sprinkled in other writers’ works as if to impress. One may argue that in order to be authentic and have characters who talk like “real” people, you need curse words and lots of them. After all, weren’t the men in line in front of me talking freely and naturally in an unrehearsed manner? Yes, it is true that some people swear profusely. It’s also true that I rarely hear such words in my work place (except the cafeteria, where people from other companies gather and some like to let loose at lunch), even though I know there is at least one true artist of the vulgar present (having heard the worst in other venues). Natural dialogue in our normal workaday context does not use strong words as punctuation and we find it works a lot more smoothly that way. For that matter, curses are uncommon in my family life as well. All of us are keeping our powder dry for that one shining moment when only the right words will do. We all know (because we are still employed) that it’s not likely to be at the conference table.

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A Spell of Trouble

When I spotted the headline in the local paper today, I did a double-take. I texted my distant spouse with a photo and he first replied, “I know.” And then, before I could write, “You DO?” He replied “Furry??” The paper had taken President Trump’s pronouncement that he would answer North Korea’s aggression with “fire and fury” and blown it up into a blaring headline that announced “Trump warns of ‘Fire and Furry‘”. As one of my co-workers pointed out, spellcheck would not have saved the day on that operation. There is no substitute for good, sound quality control (says the girl who left the “e” off of the word “note” in an email to clients yesterday, thus changing the spirit of the message).

I realize that the unmangled message from the president is very serious in nature but I can’t shake the image of a basket of puppies or kittens being handed out at a diplomatic meeting as an antidote to tense negotiations. Who knows? Maybe it would work.

A Hero for Our Time(‘)s

I knew when I read about this masked vigilante who removes superfluous apostrophes from signs, that he should be recognized in a post on this site. The story also contains several hopeful pleas from ordinary civilians regarding other offending signs that have assaulted them (including some that do not involve punctuation errors). I personally wince but turn away from such mistakes on hand-made signs and in emails but take umbrage with professionally made signs and advertising materials that don’t understand how plurals actually work in English. If one pays for a job, one should be able to expect that the job will be done with competence. As for the authors of ‘free puppy’s’, I absolve you.

She Shrugged and Tossed Her Curls

Trying to keep readers from guessing your dominant gender? You would do well to take a peek at this piece reviewing a book in which 100 classic works, 50 by men and 50 by women, were analyzed for word frequency differences. Three of the words that most suggest yours truly is a woman (freely admitted) appear in the title of this post. The piece also points out that some authors, Vladimir Nabokov in particular, are more apt to mix it up in terms of word choice.

While I have never before reviewed research on this subject, I do have experience with gender evasiveness. When I joined writing.com several years ago (I’m no longer a member), I chose for a screen name the nickname of a masculine character from a book series I had been reading. I was experimenting, testing to see if commentary would run one way or another in response to my posts. With the fiction I posted, I took no special measures, but with the blog I kept, I avoided pronouns (sometimes tortuously) that would give away my gender or that of my spouse (those being the days when the likelihood of my spouse being the opposite gender was extremely strong). I must have had some success at convincing readers I was male because I did receive a comment or two scolding me for what struck the readers as sexist remarks made by a member of that group.

Being scolded by women while I posed as a man was not a novelty. In college I played a male character in a role-playing game, tipping the gender balance of our group, which was comprised of more women than men. Since my character tended to strike a protective pose with the women (more because they were less armored and had fewer weapons than because of any skill deficit), I often got complaints about patronizing behavior. To be fair, the men in the group scolded me for hanging back too much. I once got soundly trounced for choosing not to enter a pub by busting down the door, though I was fully capable of doing so and was apparently expected to exercise my abilities to their fullest at all times. The motto must have been: Why do anything without all your weapons drawn?

The only novel-length piece I have written in first voice was done through the eyes of a male character. I have no doubt that if I re-read that book with an eye to the language, I’d find my hero wandering in the same no-man’s land as my role-playing alter ego. I offer no apology for that, since, judging from the men I know in real life, gender is not a hard and fast determinant of your behavior or language. My own experiments aside, I also don’t believe that one gender is not capable of accessing and describing the experiences of the other. It may be that the 100 works chosen for the survey cited above were more exemplars of place and time (and of who could get published) than of true social rules.

Anyway, it’s exhausting carrying a crossbow everywhere.

A Little Talking-To About Hyphens

In another post, I noted that lost commas can be the root of drama. From this post about how lack of a hyphen nearly cost a job, we learn how still another bit of punctuation can be a make-or-break force.

I won’t take the conversation any further, except to recommend this “well-intentioned rant on hyphens” by the good people at The Atlantic. I’m exhausted from battling with them in a draft given to me by a colleague where the hyphens had migrated from their necessary places to forbidden territory. For example, “follow up,” which is a (sort of) verb, got turned into “follow-up,” which is a (sort of) noun, and vice-versa. (NOTE: the last reminds me of my husband’s story of working for a boss who ordered him to “not visa-verse things.”) At least like my Northeastern US-born husband and his “conservation of R’s” (saying “cah” for car and then  “dramar” for “drama”), the writer lost no hyphens.

The best advice comes from The Atlantic article: before you slap a hyphen in place, check whether it’s advisable to use one.

When Bad Words Go Gooder

Time magazine published a sidebar column tracing the history of a handful of words and phrases that have broken the rules of grammar and lived on in their improper form as acceptable formulations. One example is the word “contact,” which is now understood as a verb as well as a noun. The column describes those of us who care about grammar as “snapping their monocles” over change but we all understand that English is a living language and, like our children, changes over time, sometimes in ways that make us cringe. We still love you, Mother Tongue, you wily, complex, eccentric old thing.

Zeroize the Verbing of Innocent Nouns

So, here I am socializing this list of problematic words with my stakeholders….but since this sentence (while perfectly acceptable in my place of work) barely sounds like English, let me explain. Lake Superior State University reminds us they exist every year by publishing their annual list of words and phrases that have been overused and should be sent to the bench, the showers, or perhaps the airport with a one-way ticket. Many of those words appear in the opening segment of this post and two of my favorites from years past appear in the title.

I was appalled in reviewing the complete list to note how many of these have crept into my writing and my everyday vernacular. In my own defense, the list has been growing for 40 years and has managed to identify some intractable dandelions that have stuck with us in American English (example: “My Bad”) along with some withering violets that have faded from use (example: “Sit On It”).

Review this list carefully and do note that while you are there, you can apply for a Unicorn Hunting License. There are worse ways to support LSSU and good clean English usage…I guess.