Transporting the dear departed euphemisms

July 2, 2014

[Trigger warning if you're grieving, or sensitive about death.]

Death is often called the great leveller; it’s also the great euphemised. I have a book on euphemisms with a full chapter devoted to it, and I’m sure that’s not unusual in the niche. The idea of death also recurs in slang and metaphor, as Jonathon Green shows here, at least some of the time for similar reasons of delicacy and evasiveness.

I was leafing through George Carlin’s book Brain Droppings the other day and found a vivid comparison of direct vs. euphemistic language in the specific area of funerals and burial (bold text in the original):

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Book review: ‘Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?’ by Steven Poole

December 9, 2013

Of all the varieties of English criticised for degrading the language, one is deplored so routinely it’s practically an international pastime. Call it management speak, business jargon, bureaucratese or corporatese, the shifty locutions and absurd metaphors of office lingo receive a constant barrage of disdain.

Such jargon has its uses, of course. It can be efficient, creative, even genuinely evocative. But more often this brand of self-important communication (or in some cases anti-communication) irritates and provokes, warping and clouding ideas in ways that are at once cynical and ridiculous, as Dilbert repeatedly shows. And the takeaway across the piece is that office jargon will keep circling back, going forward.

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A reactive defence of ‘proactive’

May 27, 2013

What is it about proactive that people hate so much? Some object to it on the grounds of superfluity, arguing (incorrectly) that it does nothing active isn’t already doing, um, actively. Others revile it as management speak, a corporate buzzword like leverage, synergy and incentivize (Boo, hiss! etc.).

COCA finds proactive commonly collocating with approach, role, stance, steps, management, and strategies, which points to its prevalence in business or academic writing. It’s been appearing in print since about 1930, but it didn’t take off until relatively recently. Its rise to popularity has been distributed evenly on either side of the Atlantic:

Google ngram viewer - proactive in UK and US English

Such swift sweeps into the general lexicon rarely go unpunished (ongoing, I’m looking at you). A few minutes of Googling delivered reams of proactive-hatred, of which the following is a small sample:

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Book review: Sick English, by Janet Byron Anderson

April 18, 2013

Specialist language sometimes spreads beyond its initial domain and becomes part of common currency. From baseball we get home run; from jousting, full tilt. And from medical science we get syndrome, viral, clinical, [X] on steroids, and others – not exactly an epidemic (that’s another one), but a significant set all the same.

For example: a detective novel I read lately (Angels Flight by Michael Connelly) contained the phrase: “the senseless and often random violence that was the city’s cancer”. Intuitively we understand the cancer metaphor, but we might never have thought about it analytically. You’ll be glad to know that someone has.

Janet Byron Anderson, a linguist and medical editor, has written a book about these words. Sick English: Medicalization in the English Language looks at how medical terminology has “migrated from hospital floors and doctors’ offices and taken up dual citizenship on the pages of newspapers, in news reports and quoted speech”.

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Neologisms, jargon, pragmatics and cant

November 4, 2011

Macmillan Dictionary Blog recently asked guest writers to choose their favourite “online English” word. I couldn’t pick a favourite, so I cheated and wrote about hashtags.

What struck me most, though, was that three contributors chose the word blog. In a follow-up post, “A blob from a bog”, I write that its multiple selection

surprised and gladdened me, because blog is a word whose sight and sound I’ve always liked but have seen subjected to severe scorn and criticism for as long as it’s been around. . . .

Blog resembles blob and bog in particular, and both of these signify wet, messy, unruly things. I like both words, but I can see how some people wouldn’t. Bog, as well as being slang for toilet (hence the pun in blogroll), has negative connotations such as in the pejorative Irish slang bogman or bog man, meaning “unsophisticated person from the countryside”. [more]

Dawn McIlvain Stahl, on the Copyediting.com blog, was also following the discussion of online words. She never liked blog but wasn’t sure why, so she set about finding “firm ground in the blog bog”.

My next post for Macmillan, “A pragmatic note”, is about the subfield of linguistics known as pragmatics, which I describe as the study of language meaning and use in context: interpersonal, social, and cultural.

Pragmatics is a very broad field with fuzzy boundaries, so my post isn’t an attempt at summary so much as a few notes on its main elements, along with expert quotes and links to further reading:

Pragmatics pays heed to social conventions and cultural norms – such as those of politeness, formality, and familiarity – and also to prosody, intonation, facial expressions, and gestures, all of which can vary considerably from one context to the next. . . .

In any conversation, we are likely to exchange both sentence-level information and more subtle, implicit information that must be inferred from the situation and from our experience of a particular language and culture – invisible meaning, as it is sometimes described. The ability to do this is called pragmatic competence. [more]

Paul-Charles Chocarne-Moreau – Opportunity makes the thief (1896)

Macmillan Dictionary’s theme for October was subcultural English, and under this category falls “Pinch a phrase from thieves’ cant”.

Here I look at the old jargon of the underworld, the secret lingo of street criminals and people on the margins of society: phrases like marriage-music (“children’s cries”), arsworm (“a little diminutive fellow”), and priggers of the cacklers (“poultry-stealers”):

Cant has been more spoken than written, and its precise origins are, unsurprisingly, shrouded in uncertainty. But it was once a vibrant vocabulary that served not only to identify someone as part of the subculture but to prevent those outside it from understanding the speaker.

Historically, this crooked corner of English met with considerable lexicographic interest. Early dialectologists seeking fresh slang for their collections would pay late-night visits to disreputable areas, partly out of linguistic interest but also as a service to society. . . . The idea was that by becoming acquainted with thieves’ and scoundrels’ “mysterious Phrases” we might more easily detect and deter their villainous activity. [more]

The above post links to several old dictionaries of cant and criminal slang that are available online. They make marvellous browsing material.

Finally, in “Caught in a webinar”, I briefly examine the newish portmanteau coinage webinar, asking whether it’s a useful and perfectly acceptable term or a faddish and objectionable barbarism. Opinion is strongly divided.

[P]eople complain that webinar . . . “should be banished on pain of death” . . . but if it is found useful enough for long enough, it will survive no matter how malformed some people consider it.

New words, especially voguish portmanteaus, tend to push people’s buttons, often for reasons that are difficult to discern – a gut reaction that just sticks. If you have reason to use webinar but you really can’t stomach it, you can always take advantage of the richness of synonymy in English by falling back on web seminar, online seminar, web conference, and so on. It’s worth the extra syllables if it keeps your blood pressure down. [more]

I mentioned that October was Macmillan Dictionary’s month of subcultural English. You can explore other monthly themes here, and you can browse my archive of articles on language and words here.

Comments are welcome; and thank you, as always, for reading.

[image source]

Preloved euphemisms

June 24, 2011

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This ad in the local freesheet Galway Advertiser caught my eye. I was interested not in the reconditioned washing machine but in the reconditioned adjective that begins the ad. Preloved (or pre-loved) is apparently a very popular euphemism for pre-owned or second-hand, but I don’t remember remarking on it before. How old is it, I wonder?

Preloved doesn’t appear in many dictionaries, with or without a hyphen. Collins English Dictionary, quoted at Dictionary.com, says it’s informal Australian, while Wiktionary has a few examples of its appearance in the wild – well, books and newspapers – modifying cars, homes, tuxedos, and tables.

Browsing Google Books, and ignoring poetical and philosophical contexts, I came across the phrase preloved clothes in Women, Sex, and Pornography (1980) by Beatrice Faust. Looking further, I saw it mentioned in a collection of William Safire’s On Language articles: by advertising “pre-loved Oriental carpets”, a dealer in Philadelphia came second place in Safire’s 1979 Language Prettification and Avoidance of Ugly Reality Awards. (First place went to “experienced cars”.)

Safire’s award suggests that preloved in the second-hand sense might have been fairly new in the late 1970s, at least in U.S. English. (I found no hits in the British National Corpus.) Continuing my casual dig, I soon found an example from 1976, in volume 25 of Chicago from WFMT radio station: “We have several pre-loved Mercedes-Benz automobiles for sale.” It appears to be an ad or blurb, and it assures us that

owning a Mercedes-Benz is somewhat akin to being in love. You shun automatic car washes in favor of doing it yourself. The right way.

I see. Then, in an old Mayville telephone directory, there appeared this ad for “new & pre-loved homes”:

That’s from 1975. Lexicographer Kory Stamper was kind enough to take a quick look in Merriam-Webster’s files, and dated it to 1975 too (pending a closer look). Let me know if you find an older example.

For what it’s worth, I don’t much like the term. Loving something doesn’t mean it’s in good condition, and total neglect might leave something as good as new. What’s wrong with second-hand?


Weasel words and skunked words

June 13, 2011

Time for a recap of my recent writing at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Near the end of April, I took a look at “skunked” words. This is a term I came across first in Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage; it refers to words whose meaning or usage is so disputed that using them is likely to bother or distract readers. Among these words are enormity, fulsome, and “Hopefully disinterested”:

Words are slippery. Their meanings can mutate and multiply, differing according to where and how they are used. The word defence, for instance, will suggest different things to a sportsperson, a psychologist, a lawyer, a doctor, and a military strategist. Our relationship with a given word depends on our history with it and what it connotes for us. Yet for the most part we can communicate straightforwardly with others, since context supplies information that reduces the chances of misunderstanding. Now and then, however, the signal turns to noise. [more]

May was Macmillan Dictionary’s month of business English, so a few of my articles fall under this category. My particular focus is on business jargon; like any other kind of jargon, it is inevitable and not inherently objectionable. However, it can also degenerate into near-meaningless gobbledygook (a phenomenon I’ve written about on this blog before). “The business of gobbledegook” is a short assessment of this kind of language and the problems it can generate:

When we communicate in a business environment, obscure jargon is an occupational hazard. Given how specialised are many industries and work environments, it’s natural that people will use a certain amount of terminology that won’t always make much sense to outsiders. The trouble is when this language is used in inappropriate contexts, or when it becomes so vague and jumbled as to be impenetrable even to its target audience. [more]

That article includes a few lines of parody-gobbledygook; next came a full article of it, “Critical learnings, going forward”, which I’ve already introduced here. A competition was held to translate the text into more meaningful English, and the submissions were a delight to read.

My follow-up post, “Weaselly recognised”, continues the theme by examining how weasel words, jargon and periphrasis are sometimes used to euphemise awkward facts. It explains why this is not helpful, and stresses some of the benefits of plain language:

Plain English is a frank and straightforward style that does not lend itself readily to expressing longwinded nonsense and hiding unpleasant facts. It is well suited to conveying meaning clearly and without guile, thereby showing a measure of respect for people’s intelligence, feelings, and capacity for dealing with difficult truths and situations – not “challengeful reality-based outcomes, going forward”. Our brains do a lot of hard work decoding language into sense; in business, it doesn’t pay to multiply this workload. [more]

Tucked in among these posts is one about the word friend and how online life has influenced its meanings. “Your flexible ‘friend’” describes how the word

straddles the digital and physical environments in a way that reflects its great flexibility and complex usage. Over the last few years its use online, particularly in social networks, has popularised the transitive verb friend . . . along with derived forms like defriend . . . and unfriend. . . . We all adapt to this shifting terrain in different ways, redefining friend and recategorising friendships to suit our habits, purposes, and feelings. And although our online activities have brought new dimensions to the word friend, the disputes and discussions about what it means are just a new phase – and perhaps an amplification – of age-old debates. [more]

This article was also published on Ragan.com under the title “The many meanings of ‘friend’”.

You’ll find all my articles for Macmillan Dictionary Blog on this page.


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