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.
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). I often disagree with myself, but I stand by this:
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-forward, inclusive, project, ahead of, a sense of, upcoming, ongoing (wahey!), serves to, lifestyle, and figurative sleepwalking.
He has also banned Oxford commas and text abbreviations. All of them. Banning FTW!
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 frown and a whim. As soon as a new phrase is used more than a couple of times, it risks incurring his 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! and
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 seem to 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'”.
He has also written about the rise of awesome.
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).