The problem with banning words

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.

Father Ted: “Down with this sort of thing”

When banning fever takes hold, it can be hard to stop: the repressive impulse gathers momentum and settles into habit. ‘Other words will be addressed once we get rid of awesome,’ the campaigner promises, ominously.

For longer than I’ve been alive, Michigan’s Lake Superior State University has compiled a yearly list of ‘Banished Words’ – or to give it its full title, a ‘List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness’. It began as a publicity stunt, and the amount of attention it receives decades later is frankly amazing.

Amazing appears on the 2012 list, alongside the equally innocuous occupy and thank you in advance. Awesome featured in 2007. These phrases may be criticised for their ubiquity, but the list smacks of overkill. Though it’s tongue in cheek, it encourages the zero tolerance brigade who need little motivation to harangue and judge people for their choice of vocabulary – as though the use of jargon, clichés or fad expressions somehow indicated weak character or a moral deficit.

Last year, I wrote about the word ongoing when a journalist I know on Twitter said he was asked to ban it in a style guide. The Guardian’s style guide writers also think the world would be a happier place if we deleted ongoing “whenever & wherever we see it” (which spells trouble for the 23,500+ examples on the Guardian website). From my earlier post:

The idea of banning words and phrases crops up repeatedly. While certainly it’s worthwhile to draw attention to clichés, vogue words and otherwise potentially troublesome expressions, I don’t think banning them is a sensible solution. At the very least, it inculcates a proscriptive and censorial attitude, which is unconstructive. And what happens when a word you need is a word you’ve banned?

The author James Brown commented, ‘we’re on a slippery slope, as they say, if we’re foolish enough to turn our judgements into some kind of “language law.”‘ But this is what we do. We effortlessly extend our personal dislikes across the known universe. And, as Ben Greenman remarked in his new word-elimination game at the New Yorker, ‘if we lined up all the words people hated, there might be no words left’.

Ongoing sparked a humorously indignant post on Language Log last week after Geoffrey Pullum was disallowed from using it in a piece for Lingua Franca, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s language blog. He described the proscription as ‘lexical fascism‘ and said it was ‘funny how these irrational word-rage objections to specific coinages become unquestionable long-term policy’.


The word-banning habit has a happy home at the UK Independent, where John Rentoul keeps a regularly updated ‘Banned List‘ of clichés and neologisms that elicit his scorn – enough to publish a book of them. He has banned hundreds of expressions, including debut (v.), feral, fast-forwardinclusive, project, ahead of, a sense of, upcoming, ongoing (wahey!), serves to, lifestyle, and figurative sleepwalking. He has also banned Oxford commas and text abbreviations. Yes, all of them.

When Rentoul banned duet as a verb, a commenter pointed out that it has been in use for almost 200 years. The reaction? ‘I don’t care how long it has been used for, I don’t like it!’ All it takes is a whim. As soon as a new phrase is used more than a couple of times, it risks incurring Rentoul’s displeasure. Another commenter said: ‘if you hadn’t mentioned some of these banned phrases, in the first place, we would never have known they existed.’

The fact that everyone draws the line differently on cliché should give one pause before pressing the Big Red Ban Button. When I see people ‘banning’ words, I want to use those words purely out of contrariness or devilment. What is this compulsion to impose one’s preferences on the rest of the world? In most cases it amounts to nothing more than an indulgence in peeving.

We’ve been here before, or near enough. Some people, if they don’t like a word, simply say it’s not a word, when it very obviously is. Not a word! Burn it! Ban it! Denial and repression. We can do better than this with our pet lexical dislikes. There are ways to ostracise phrases without rejecting consensus reality or being relentlessly dogmatic.

At Discover Magazine, Carl Zimmer maintains an index of words he has banned from his science writing class. I wonder about some of the choices – context, processes, via? – but Zimmer’s intent is explicitly educational, and his explanation is more constructive and nuanced than is typical of would-be word-abolishers:

I don’t mean to say that no one should ever use these words. . . .What I mean is that anyone who wants to learn how to write about science . . . should work hard to learn how to explain science in plain yet elegant English – not by relying on scientific jargon, code-words, deadening euphemisms, or meaningless clichés.


I’m an editor. I see my fill of filler phrases; I meet no lack of hackneyed expressions. I encounter clichés so clichéd that even complaining about them is a cliché. So I try to avoid them, and sometimes I encourage others to avoid them too.

But banning them? That’s impossible, and the idea makes me uneasy. No matter how much I dislike My bad, Just sayin’, Booyah, Cosign, etc., I have no wish to ban them. I lack that dictatorial instinct.

If you don’t like a word or phrase, don’t use it. Explain why, if you like, to anyone willing to listen. But banning everyone everywhere from ever using it is futile and heavy-handed. Not only that: it’s a cliché.


Lane Greene at Johnson has taken up the theme, noting that many writers have earned the ‘Curmudgeon Medal . . . by penning a list of detested clichés or fashionable words that are henceforth (somehow) “banned”.’ But banning words won’t automatically improve one’s writing, and he recommends that we ‘can the “bans”‘.

John E. McIntyre, at You Don’t Say, wonders ‘why anyone would want to ban words in the first place. Yes, for editorial purposes a little Amish shunning seems apt, but not obliterating them from the language. Besides, the language attends to itself.’

Giulia Zoli offers a summary and brief commentary at Internazionale (in Italian).

44 Responses to The problem with banning words

  1. thepoormouth says:

    It’s all rather silly even if we all do have our pet peeves (it’s the misuse of DNA for me). I see Michigan banned Chad in 2001. I wonder if it was because someone had a bad time in N’Djamena rather than getting fed up with the presidential election!

  2. If bloggers like you keep complaining about these banned-words lists, how long can it be before “ban” makes LSSU’s banned words list?

  3. theoxymoranist says:

    Just as our culture is an ever changing facet of our lives, so are words. I think it is amazing how our language changes form as generations pass. Words and the way we use them are like hidden artifacts, a whole century could be distinguished by the language. I love reading old literature and trying to learn some old words that are beautiful and not uttured as often as they should be.

  4. Jenny says:

    There’s something unsettlingly fascist about banning words, especially if the reason boils down to the fact that you don’t like them! Anyway, awesome post, thanks!

  5. Lane says:

    I’m glad to see Carl Zimmer’s good sense – he is Ben’s brother, after all…

  6. I don’t agree with banning words. Word choice is an expression of character, and when you ban words you’re exercising a dictatorial stance over a population. No one likes to be told how they can speak. If you’re a teacher or just anyone with any influence over someone or a group of people, you can elicit your opinions in an attempt to get them to see your way, but if they don’t there’s nothing you can do about it. People are going to think and speak in their preferred style of language, and if you made a big enough influence on them they’ll alter their language accordingly, which further attests to their character. That’s my spiel.

  7. Stan says:

    Jams: Exactly: Pet peeves are inevitable for most people, but they can be kept in their place. I think an aversion to the DNA cliché must be in your DNA!

    Andy: Hopefully not long. Maybe I should start a campaign.

    theoxymoranist: Well said! Language change has a bad reputation among traditionalists, but there is beauty and fascination in it.

    Jenny: Thank you! Funnily enough, fascist is already on the banned list, though the problematic sense of the word is slightly different to the one you used.

    Lane: Good sense must run in the family. And Carl practises what he preaches: his blog and books are very well written.

    Lauren Michelle: “Word choice is an expression of character” – very true. If we want to influence how other people express themselves, we can, in appropriate contexts, adopt reasonable techniques of education and persuasion. I don’t think banning words peremptorily is a constructive approach.

  8. Toufiqur Rahman says:

    Why they are assailing the words ? It’s an interpersonal choice , how they opt the words. People must have pet peeves on it. Who dare these stamp out ? Isn’t it insanely awesome ?

  9. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Hate to sound like a hyperbolic alarmist here, but I can’t help but conjure up George Orwell’s ‘revolutionary’ novel, “1984”, w/ his dark, disturbing vision of a future distopian totalitarian state, where the omnipotent and omnipresent, dispassionate, fearless leader,”Big Brother”, rules supreme, and “Newspeak’ (Queen’s English-lite, if you will), has become the prescribed lingua franca of the land; where “doublethink’ (holding two opposing viewpoints, or ideologies at the same time) becomes the accepted norm, rather than the rare exception.

    This extracted quote from the “1984” character, Syme, praising the shrinking size of the most current Newspeak dictionary seems most prescient….. “I’t’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” (Hmm… sound familiar?)

    OK. Granted, Orwell’s “1984” is a science/ political fictional account of what might be. Yet in his day, on the heels of the devastation, and trauma of World War II, his jaundiced, yet enlightened view provided a thought-provoking, cautionary tale of the possible dire consequences for human freedom w/ the unchallenged rise of the forces of absolute, malevolent power, and the concomitant evils of fascist regimes.

    Now I wouldn’t put our little coterie of today’s diehard petty peevers, ‘word-banners’, and stringent prescriptivists into the same camp as Orwell’s oppressive Big Brother and his brainwashed minions, but IMHO, their relentless desire to completely expunge certain alleged improperly-used, clichéd, or just plain ‘silly’ words from the lexicon does smack of a mild form of creeping dictatorship, all be it within the realm of lexicography and language usage.

    Thankfully, the ‘awesome’ majority of those who view English as their first language, or native tongue, do not pay much lip-service, or give a lot of real credence to those peevish, strident, contrarian voices in the wilderness; and moreover, choose to embrace, and relish in the basic democratic, ever-evolving, multi-textured nature of English—clichés, oddities, silly words, and all.

  10. io says:

    Let’s continue some trivial dialogue and discuss some options, shall we?


    Yeah, fuck that.


    Which has more impact?

  11. Claude says:

    I’m still (forever) in the process of learning the language. I’m always so happy when I have added another ‘linguistic inflation’ to my vocabulary. I agree to NO BAN! I put your awesome post on Facebook for all my Quebec friends to read. Thank you, Stan!

  12. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Bonjour Claude,

    C’est magnifique!

    Or as they say down here in Southern California…… “that’s totally awesome, dude”. (Don’t get me going. I just might lapse into Valley Girl-speak….. for sure.)

    As a fellow (now expat) Canuck, it is heartening to hear a (I assume) proud Francophone, waxing almost poetic about the sheer expansive nature of the English tongue, while sharing his obvious enthusiasm w/ his fellow Québecois.

    Três bien, monsieur.

  13. Claude says:

    Merci Alex! I learned English by immersion. There is much to correct, of course. I was so grateful to be led to “Sentence first” through another blog (Omnium). Stan is such a knowledgeable, interesting teacher. I love the fact that he doesn’t bow down to the nonsense of the ultra traditionalists.

    Et Claude est une vieille dame, née à Montréal, qui a vécu un peu partout, et demeure maintenant à Toronto. À votre santé, M’sieur Alex!

  14. Marc Leavitt says:

    Linguistic fascism is the last refuge of little minds. The question arises: Who made these people the final arbiters of felicitous language? Language is our greatest tool; without it, how would we communicate? If I choose to use a cliche which expresses my meaning, I have used the language successfully. If you, the reader, take exception with my mode of address, so much the worse for you; stop reading.

  15. In the early 1980s I took an English class at night at a little local college, a couple of years out of high school. I had played a lot of sports in high school, and shared many a bus ride with teammates. Where I lived in Central California, “rapping” had just begun. It was more rhyming than rapping back than. I hated it, but my English teacher loved it because he felt it demonstrated a creative use of language. In fact, when he spoke of it his eyes got all big and dreamy-looking. Language explodes yearly, and it’s good. We may not like it all, but if people are saying it, it’s language.

  16. I’m always slightly pleased when people use the word “cliche” correctly — too many people restrict it to figures of speech, and don’t associate it with more abstract examples. I first noticed this back in the nineties, reading a language column in a newspaper that reported on a competition to elect the world’s worst cliche or something. Not only were all of the entries verbal expressions, but the columnist also wrote as though that were all that a cliche can be.

  17. alexmccrae1546 says:


    I apologize for unwittingly addressing you as un homme ( a man) in my last dispatch. (Who knew?)

    It didn’t dawn on me that the Fr. name “Claude” could be either feminine, or masculine. Is the feminine “Claude” short for Claudette, perhaps?

    Most of the very first Claudes I was aware of were members of the National Hockey League, when I was a typical young hockey fanatic growing up in your now-adopted hometown of Toronto, way back in the ’50s.

    I can still recall the brush-cut-sporting, Montréal Canadien’s journeyman player Claude Provost from that hockey’s golden era w/ his stellar teammates— the elegantly smooth-skating, team captain, Jean Beliveau, that magician-on-blades, the charismatic Maurice “The Rocket” Richard ( and little brother Henri), and the first-ever masked pro NHL goalie, Jacques Plante.

    Such heady times in Canada’s early storied hockey history, particularly the great long-running rivalry between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Habs of Montréal. (Why am I feeling so ancient right now? HA!)

    Claude, I echo your enthusiasm for this “Sentence first” blog, definitely a huge cut above the rest. Blogmeister Stan is a very special, life-affirming human being, and such a uniquely gifted communicator.

    I must say it’s great to be able to commune w/ another fellow Canadian, even though, geographically we are thousands of miles apart. Oh, the marvels of the blogosphere.

    You are maybe, as you put it, “une veille dame”, but you still seem very much alive, engaged, and curious about language, and I dare say, the world. So, in essence, you are still very much young in heart, spirit, and mind.

    A votre santé, aussi, Claude.

    @Everett Powers—-I too wasn’t initially that keen on either “hip-hop”, or “rap”, until I managed to catch a few very illuminating documentaries on the subject of seminal inner-city-street-inspired music, homing in on many of the so-called ‘homies’ who made it big in the commercial recording biz. (Snoop Dogg, Ice T, Eminem, and the like.)

    I’ve since come to realize that the best of this ‘life-in-the-hood’-inspired, rhyming, lyric-heavy, percussion-based music often exhibits some amazingly sophisticated, clever, meaningful word-smithing—- dare I say poetry?

    Everett, I like your observation, “language explodes yearly”. To me, this notion of a constant linguistic flowering of our native tongue applies, one-hundred-fold, in the ever-percolating creative cauldron of world rap, and hip-hop, where stream-of-consciousness-like riffing, and the coining of new, colorful street argot has become, for many of our inner-city, marginalized youth, a creative imperative, and a potential escape from a potential life of poverty, or crime.

    (Interestingly, the word “cool” likely came out of the early American jazz music milieu, and was later co-opted by the Beats, and then the ‘Hippie Nation’. Today, the use of the word “cool” to describe something that’s very with-it, or groovy, is pretty much universally accepted….. as, well, cool.)

  18. Claude says:

    Alex – You’re right. Claude is a very rare name for a woman. I’ve heard of a few from France. Claude de France, Duchesse de Bretagne (1499-1524) married Francis 1. The Queen was limping from birth. I always believed that the word “claudication” came from her name and condition. There was also Claude de Valois (1547-1575), Duchesse de Lorraine, daughter of Catherine de Medici and Henri 2 de France. And Claude Pompidou, wife of George Pompidou, 19ième President de France (after Charles de Gaulle).

    Most of the time you’ll see Marie Claude. It would have simplified my life to adopt that name. After so many years, the Canadian Government still thinks of me as a man, in most business letters, until I correct the assumption. Of course, there are also a few names in English (like Lesley) which can be confusing.

    Cool to hear of my hockey heroes by someone who knows them! Les Canadiens de Montréal (of my youth) became legendary.

    Another wonderful asset we can attribute to Stan is that he reads and writes French very well. I’ve been contributing little poems and sharing French literature excerpts on this blog, with so much joy, in the last few years. Stan est devenu un grand ami. Je l’aime de tout mon coeur!

    Thank you for your attention, Alex. Meilleurs voeux!

  19. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Folks, even though my posting date, and time for that last, admittedly long-winded commentary, says “April 27, 2012 at 3:43AM”…. trust me, I’m not an insomniac. (That clearly reflected Ireland time.)

    Here, in (almost always) sunny Southern California, when I dispatched that last post it was just barely past 8:30PM/ Pacific Standard Time… and the waning remains of April 26th.

    Such are the vagaries of those wacky world time zones.

  20. Stan says:

    Toufiqur: Only people who ban words can explain why they do so.

    Alex: Orwell occurred to me, but I decided to leave him out of the post. I find it interesting that he’s often cited by the same linguistic purists and fusspots who call, without apparent irony, for words to be banned.

    io: The second one, for me.

    Claude: Another strike for linguistic liberté! Merci, Claude. And it’s a pleasure to see you and Alex get acquainted: one of this blog’s earliest and most treasured readers, and a most welcome recent reader, both heartfelt lovers of language (and birds!).

    Marc: Exactly. They made themselves final arbiters. It’s silly and undemocratic to dictate what everyday phrases people may or may not use. Sometimes a cliché is the best option; just because it more often isn’t is no reason to ban it.

    Everett: Your English teacher had the right idea, I think. And even when we dislike a particular use of language, we can accept its utility or invention in its own right.

    Adrian: The verbal sense is so dominant, I guess it’s natural for people to assume it as the only sense, or the only legitimate one. Glad to have bucked the trend a little.

  21. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Bonjour Claude,

    Indeed, there are several, what could be termed, ‘unisexed’ (male or female) English given names out there, including Evelyn, Gene, Alex (I’m a guy HA!), Pat, Lynn, Cecil, Kim, and Francis come immediately to mind.

    (Some, in the feminine mode, however, are actually short forms, or nicknames; for example, “Pat”, for Patricia, “Alex” for Alexa, or Alexandra, or “Kim” for Kimberly.)

    Of course we have the eccentric scribe, George Sand, who likely chose this seemingly masculine nom-de-plume, due to perhaps a prevalent anti-woman bias in the the area of Arts-and-Letters back in the Britain of her day.

    I know there are several women writers of some note who even today use a masculine pseudonym, or an ambiguous first name, much for the same reason that George Sand did in her era.

    Thankfully, I think woman writers, in general, have advanced a long way as we move into the second decade of this new century, from that once male-dominated world of popular literature.

    It’s interesting that the masculine Fr. name, François, is transformed into the feminine, Françoise, w/ the mere addition of the single letter “e”.

    One of the most celebrated Françoise is the popular French singer/ actress, Françoise Hardy. (A real beauty, as well.)

    Of course, the 21st President of the French Republic, François Mitterand, and the famed New Wave film auteur, François Truffaut are two of France’s most widely familiar “François (s)”

    So much for the name game.

    Au revoir, Claude,

    Meilleurs voeux, aussi.

  22. Claude says:

    Françoise Sagan, of course!

    Saluts, Alex!

  23. Picky says:

    I think you take this stuff too seriously, Stan. The words don’t really get banned, you know. We all have our peeves and our joke peeves, and columnists get to use theirs as raw material when they run out of ideas. Lightening up is called for, I think.

    (Hi Alex)

  24. Stan says:

    I realise the words don’t really get banned, Picky – otherwise, how would I have been able to mention them? In the post, I called it “impossible”. But thanks for the condescension, which I promise not to take too seriously. Rest assured, I don’t go around fretting about all this. But I think “banning” words, as well as normally being silly and impossible, can also fuel intolerance of other people’s language usage. And that’s one of my peeves.

  25. alexmccrae1546 says:


    Respectfully old chap, I think you could lighten up here, a tad, on well-intentioned blogmeister Stan. I don’t believe he’s saying there are actual ‘word-police’ afoot, putting folks who use certain ‘verboten’ words into some kind of gaol, or language offenders prison. (Shades of Orwell’s “1984” scenario.)

    Yet, I dare say, there are those diehard peevers and proper language usage purists who, if they could actualize their wildest fantasies, would be slapping duct tape over the mouths of language offenders, or rapping the knuckles of those who would dare type, or write such literary affronts to the native tongue. (Not that all language peevers have a sadistic streak, mind you.)

    Further, i commend Stan for at least bringing up the notion of banishing certain words from the lexicon, thus opening up a fruitful discussion on the possibilities, if nothing else.

    Picky, I know it’s often your want to just ‘stir-the-pot’ for stirring sake, on occasion. And we fellow bloggers love you for it. If we all agreed on everything, this online blogging enterprise would be a complete, and utter bore.

    Picky, it’s great to see you back using your original online moniker. Your earlier, “Pickish, and “Picky Picky”, frankly didn’t quite cut it for me. HA!

    I’m sure you and Stan go way back w/ your shared blog history here, so I’ll just step aside and let you two fellows work out the odd wee rough spots between you two, sensing that the mutual respect and fondness for one another is still very much in tact.


  26. Picky says:

    No, no, Alex, I’m a stranger in this part of town.

    And Stan, I apologise for sounding condescending. It just seems to me over the top when the language commentariat descends like Almighty Wrath on some light-hearted piece. I agree such pieces have next to no effect on the language people use. I don’t think they have much effect on public tolerance, either.

  27. alexmccrae1546 says:


    Well, you really fooled me there, laddie. I thought you and Stan were almost online bosom ‘buds’, but my instincts were clearly off-base. “Stranger in this part of town”, indeed. Oh well.

    Strikes me that most of these inveterate peevish prescriptivist types suffer from a major sense-of-humor deficit, stemming perhaps from either too-early weaning from mum’s nurturing bosom, or being born without a funny-bone*. All…. strident, annoying, humorless voices in the wilderness, I contend.

    Picky, have you pretty much given up on posting on John McIntyre’s “You Don’t Say” blog? I’ve seen only an occasional brief “Picky” comment, of late. Yet I realize that you are somewhat limited in your ‘visits’ to the site due to The Sun’s pay-wall restrictions re/ non-online-subscribers.

    Alas, it is a bit of a sad scenario over there in Charm City, U.S.A., w/ that awkward, newfangled “Comments” format literally gumming up the works, and taking away a lot of the former fun and ease of back-and-forth communicating.

    I trust (and hope) John (McI.) is still getting a fair amount of online readership. But clearly there’s been a huge fall-off in posted commentary these days. A real pity. (Still a lot of ‘tweeters’, and ‘sharers’, however.)

    I guess, change, for good, or ill, is kind of inevitable, and we just have to go w/ the flow.

    *A condition that ingesting large amounts of calcium supplements, or copious quantities of dairy products can not ameliorate.

    Cheers mate!

  28. Stan says:

    Picky: Thank you. If it was just “some light-hearted piece”, I’d have ignored it. But this business of banning words is a common feature of style guides and peeve-books, and it’s a popular annual university event – not to mention the countless ban-the-word cries in less formal contexts, such as blogs and social media.

    It’s a widespread and long-standing practice, in other words, and I’m calling BS on it (with exceptions, as noted). I hoped my post was a level-headed response, and I don’t see the “Almighty Wrath” you’ve read into it. You find the criticism over the top; I think banning words is. So be it.

    Alex: Thanks for your considered comments. I think you’re right about usage purists: that some of them would relish having the power to control other people’s speech instead of just mouthing off irascibly about it. The Queen’s English Society comes to mind.

    It is a pity about the redesigned comments format on You Don’t Say. Reading John McIntyre’s wise and witty thoughts on language remains a reliable pleasure, but I do miss reading the lively discussion below the posts.

  29. Picky says:

    Alex – you mustn’t accuse me of stirring the pot for stirring’s sake: you’ll get me banned! And it ain’t true. I come in peace. I think the prescriptive v descriptive wars are becoming tedious and barren and I favour not stirring up but calming down.

    Stan – so be it.

    Both – I didn’t object to the Sun’s putting up a paywall on JEMcI: newspapers are desperate for any new source of revenue in these latter days. But the interface for commenting is just horrible! No doubt someone will clean it up sometime.

    Alex – I’ve been a regular reader here, of course, but not a commenter. I was finally woken from my lethargy by this post. I think there are serious questions to be asked about how we help people to be comfortable in a standard version of their English, and these questions need us to put aside the language wars. As you know, my native English is a charming(?) London dialect – of which I am unreasonably proud. But it is one of the great blessings of my life that I have been able to add to the range of my idiolect something akin to Standard BrE. The freedom one receives from confident performance in a standard version is something I would wish to be the possession of everyone. I don’t think the prescriptive v descriptive scraps help.

  30. Stan says:

    Picky: I didn’t know you were a regular reader, and I welcome your visits. I believe (now!) that you come in peace, but all I had to go on was that your very first comment told me to lighten up and advised me on what I should or shouldn’t take seriously.

    The prescriptive vs. descriptive scrap is tiresome, and often represented simplistically. I made no mention of it above, but I’ve written before about how the two general approaches can be reconciled; for my part I draw on both. But I don’t like the zero tolerance and ill-informed peeving so prevalent in everyday discussion of language.

  31. Picky says:

    As to your second paragraph, Stan, I agree: Yes, and yes. No you didn’t, and yes you have; and yes you do. I agree with your last sentence and we have merely a difference of emphasis. Peace. As to your first paragraph, I am obviously not at my best when awoken from lethargy.

  32. alexmccrae1546 says:


    I can assure you I wasn’t trying to pull off an Emile Zola-esque “J’ accuse” ruse, here.

    If you took my “stirring-the-pot” observation as an unwarranted personal affront (which you kind of did), then I sincerely apologize.

    I wasn’t necessarily suggesting that you were some kind of wanton ‘S**T-disturber, intentionally instigating acrimonious debate while vicariously relishing in the ensuing fur flying, spittle gushing, the inevitable gnashing-of-teeth, and fomenting of general bombast.

    What I was perhaps trying more to convey was that, on occasion, you opt to play the role of devil’s advocate, or maybe take the contrarian stance on a particular issue, w/ the commendable intent of enlivening what might be deemed a rather dull, meandering, or even completely moribund online discussion. In other words, a kind of leavening, sparking agent, if you will.

    In summation, my ‘stirring up’ notion was offered up as more of a compliment to Your Pickyness, rather than a pointed criticism. (Although sometimes I never know if your expressed umbrage is genuine, or more tongue in cheek. Feigned displeasure, as it were, just for the fun of it.)

    I know you always come in peace, ‘Kemosabi’*, and rarely if ever have an ax to grind.

    Nice to see you and blogmeister Stan are sort of on the same page now, and appear to find more common ground to agree upon re/ the seemingly eternal prescriptivist vs descriptivist debate, than to disagree on.

    *Kemosabi (sp. ?) was Native American Tonto’s affectionate moniker for his side-kick, the Lone Ranger. Tonto often claimed that “White man speak w/ forked tongue.” Sounds like he may have spent some time on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Just sayin’.

  33. Picky says:

    I’d have thought Kimosabi is what stays in my memory. Probably means “Rather Plump White Man”. And I’m umbrageless, Alex, mate.

  34. alexmccrae1546 says:


    “Umbrageless”, indeed.

    Are you danderless, as well?

    Gettin’ your dander up….. that sort of thing. (I recommend not sporting a dark charcoal suit-coat when one’s dander is up. Just sayin’.)

    Picky, old chap, my initial stab at spelling of ‘Kimosabi’ was identical to yours, w/ the first “i” following the “K”. Basically as it sounds, phonetically. But I opted for an “e”, rather than the “i” in my post.

    But then later I did a quick Wiki-check, and they offer several variations, i.e., Ke mo sah bee, Kemo sabe and Kemosabe; the latter two having, in my view, more of a familiar sounding Japanese surname air about them w/ the “abe” ending. The name Watanabe, immediately comes to mind.

    The online Urban Dictionary, however, spells it “Kimosabi”, as you had remembered it. So full creds to you.

    Of course, you likely know that Jay Siverheels, the actor who portrayed Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s trusty TV series sidekick, was a full-blooded Canadian-born Mohawk, born near Brantford, Ontario, on the local Six Nations Reserve. (Had to get that Canadian connection in there, somehow. HA!)

    His real name was actually Harold J. Smith, but his adopted ‘stage’ moniker, Jay Silverheels, definitely had a more exotic ring to it, adding to the whole early TV Lone Ranger mystique.

    Interestingly, a Lone Ranger feature film, starring Johnny Depp as the intrepid masked lawman, will be released later this summer. I doubt it will have much of the charm, or innocence of the popular ’50s TV series. Depp always manages to give any character he portrays a kind of eccentric, off-center vibe. Probably this stems, to some degree, from his close association w/ out-there director Tim Burton, who he has worked w/ on several successful film projects.

    Hi ho Silver………. away!

  35. alexmccrae1546 says:


    Apparently I got my Hollywood scoop on the upcoming Lone Ranger feature film wrong, in that actor Johnny Depp is slated to play the Tonto character, NOT the dashing masked lawman, as I erroneously stated in my earlier post.

    He’s opted to give his Tonto a radical makeover from the Jay Silverheels’ 1950’s TV iconic version, and frankly, from stills I’ve viewed on the internet, looks more like a goth-like, macabre figure, w/ copious amounts of black streaked facial ‘warpaint’, an disarray of feathers, plus an actual dead, stuffed crow or raven, wings spread to the winds, perched atop his head. (This ain’t your grandmom’s Tonto, for sure.)

    Depp’s Tonto-redux looks more like his flamboyant “Pirates of the Caribbean” Capt. Jack Sparrow character, than a bona fide Native American sheriff’s deputy. Just sayin’.

    Oh, actor Armie Hammer (grandson of the famed billionaire/ philanthropist Armand Hammer) is slated to play the Lone Ranger in the film. His last major feature film role was in the movie “J. Edgar”, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, as the outsized (in so many ways), former long-standing FBI czar, J. Edgar Hoover.

  36. johnwcowan says:

    For the most part, Roman women didn’t really have names: they simply used the name of their gens, or clan, with a feminine ending. So all the women of Julius Caesar’s family, for example, were called Julia officially. (Men didn’t do that much better: there were only a very limited number of masculine first names, many of them having to do with birth order, like Tertius ‘third-born’.)

    To mitigate the obvious problems of this system, women were often informally called by diminutive forms of their formal names, which is why there is an association in the Romance languages between diminutives and feminine names. However, Claudia was the name of an early saint (she presumably belonged to the gens Claudius, like the fifth Roman emperor), and consequently went on being given to girls after the Roman naming system had broken down.

    Unfortunately, in French Claudius and Claudia both became Claude by regular sound-change, causing them to collide. The English name Terry, which is likewise epicene, similarly derives from both the gens name Terentius > Terence and the feminine version Terentia, though most female bearers of it today are T(h)eresas, a Greek name borrowed into Latin.

  37. Stan says:

    Most enlightening, John. I used to wonder about the connection between diminutives and feminine names, but never looked into it.

    In Ireland the versatile -ín suffix, anglicised as -een, is very common in forming diminutives and affectionate terms: not only in names (Maureen, Páidín, Doreen, Coleen, Bláithín “little flower”) but elsewhere, as in smithereens, boreen (bóthar + -ín => bóithrín), cailín, a biteen, and capaillín, as in Myles na gCopaleen.

  38. […] and Stan Carey showed us the unreality of real estate language, and on his own blog, commented on the problem with banning words. In the week in words, Erin McKean noted particularist, “those who adhere to particularism, a […]

  39. thesocratesofsnails says:

    I find it a little odd that you’re referencing Orwell as your supporter, when I think “Politics and the English Language” would lend some support to the efforts of the Banned Word list — indeed, Orwell seemed to want nothing more than to ban a good deal of the neologisms of his own time.

    Another thing is that the characterization of good people of LSSU as would-be tyrants or some kind of American Académie française is entirely off-base. I grew up in northern Michigan and both my parents went to Michigan Tech, so I can tell you they do it as a lark, even if it’s popular lark. If they had any serious intentions other than to blow of the steam of linguistic peevishness that everyone —- even the good people of posting on this blog, at least in their hearts — feels on some level. If they really wanted to “ban” these words, they would couch it in academic terms so no one would even know they really wanted to impose their linguistic views on them.

  40. Stan says:

    thesocratesofsnails: Orwell’s essay contains some of the faults he rails against, and he acknowledges as much. This kind of self-contradiction is perhaps inevitable when we write at length about pet linguistic peeves, but it’s part of what makes this subject interesting.

    The LSSU’s list is, by their own admission, a publicity stunt, or at least it began as one and became a habit or tradition. A bit of fun, sure, but of a sort that promotes an attitude towards language that is principally negative, nit-picking, judgemental, and unhelpfully independent of context. Instead of blowing off steam, there is the option of not fuelling the fire of word rage in the first place.

  41. thesocratesofsnails says:

    Our disagreement is probably too fundamental. But I’ll ask this — a while ago, one of the words on the list was “green”, one that vaguely connotes “environmentally friendly”. But because of the vagueness of the word, we end up with greenwashing, where companies slap that word on anything that might possibly be perceived as “green”.

    I’ll also add that many, if not all, of the words on the list originate in the mass media. I think many of them were popularized with the specific intent of manipulating people by using a vague word or turn of phrase that could easily be spun any way the speaker wanted.

    Finally, ranting and raving so as to stir up strife or some kind of “word rage” is one thing, and I really don’t think this list is even doing that in the first place. But suppressing all thought that don’t embrace universal harmony between all different groups as though we never had them is another thing. Indeed, from my perspective, your post could easily be seen as just as “negative, nit-picking, judgemental, and unhelpfully independent of context” as the thing you criticize. I’m not saying you chief aim was feeling superior to supposedly intolerant people — I’m sure your aims are pure — but your sentiments smack of Bad Faith to me.

  42. Stan says:

    I’m sorry you think that. For what it’s worth, I wrote about greenwashing for Macmillan Dictionary Blog last year, noting that some companies “are unscrupulous about jumping on the green bandwagon in an effort to boost their profits”.

  43. thesocratesofsnails says:

    I don’t really believe that you are acting out of meanness or snobbery — I agree their is a lot of intolerance and anger and stoking the fire doesn’t help anything. But I trained as an English teacher (though my only real teaching experience was with Latin), and during my student teaching experience, I had to go through papers with a red pen all the time with notes like “too vague” or “hard to understand”, and I don’t think I was trying to silence anyone, just to get my students to be a bit more precise. I know a lot of English teachers have “banned” words like “good” or “bad” when a more descriptive word would make the writing more vivid.

  44. […] DIctionary) – Is massively hyperbolic hyperbole leaving writers nowhere to go? The problem with banning words (Sentence First) – Stan Carey (the writer of the previous post) looks at whether its […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: