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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Book review: Netymology: From Apps to Zombies, by Tom Chatfield

June 7, 2013

Given the perennial popularity of linguistic declinism, a common contemporary version of which is “the internet/texting is destroying language”, it comes as a relief and a pleasure to read a balanced appraisal of internet language itself. Tom Chatfield’s new book Netymology: From Apps to Zombies is a sensible, fascinating, and enthusiastic exploration of the origins and usage of digital terminology; in its own words, it’s a linguistic celebration of the digital world.

Whether you’re a l33t user or a relative n00b, you’ll find much to enjoy and ponder in Netymology. Its 100 short chapters, each 2–3 pages long, offer informative snippets on such cultural byroads and subcultural thoroughfares as the mechanics of keyboards, the Beasts of Baidu, the origins of Pac-Man’s name, and the Vatican’s patron saint of the internet (really), to take a few examples virtually at random.

Netymology covers a lot of ground but is never heavy going. From a wealth of sources it plucks and condenses choice nuggets of technological history, such as the eccentric story of Apple’s command key, aka pretzel key or splodge (⌘):

Known properly as the St John’s Arms, it’s an ancient, knot-like heraldic symbol, dating back in Scandinavia to at least 1000 BC, where it was used to ward off evil spirits and bad luck.

It’s still found today on Swedish maps, representing places of historical interest, thanks to its (approximate) resemblance to the tower of a castle viewed from above.

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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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Usage Peeve Bingo

January 16, 2013

If you search Google Images for “buzzword bingo”, you’ll see how popular a game (or pretend game) it is. Some examples were probably inspired by Dilbert, veteran victim of business jargon:

Dilbert - buzzword bingo

By comparison, bingo cards of grammar/usage peeves are surprisingly rare. On Twitter recently I described a Guardian article as “peever’s bingo” because it contained so many timeworn usage peeves, like literally and whom.

Maybe I had this comment by LanguageHat at the back of my mind. In any case, author and ex-copyeditor Scott Huler replied that an actual bingo card of pedantic peeves would be a good idea. So here it is:

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The problem with banning words

April 26, 2012

I recently wrote about linguistic inflation for Macmillan Dictionary Blog, asking self-referentially if the phenomenon was “insanely awesome”. John Petrie, in a comment, told me about a “Campaign to Stamp Out Awesome”. The person responsible calls it a “nauseatingly ubiquitous (and by now, completely meaningless) superlative”. He sells stickers with this message.

Inflation is a form of semantic change. This is a very common process, yet critics tend to be strangely selective about the particular changes that bother them. It doesn’t seem to matter to awesome-haters that many people find the weakened sense of the word natural and useful, or that to call it “completely meaningless” is absurdly hyperbolic – something to which another pedant might well object. Now that would be a funny campaign. Read the rest of this entry »


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