Toussaint column: A bigly blast of buzzwords
May 24, 2018
In this column, I will be unpacking my thoughts on language and offering a few learnings predicated on a lifetime of work in the publishing vertical. For decades, we Americans have been pivoting away from perfectly good words and weaponizing others by disrupting their meanings and, in the process, leaving our listeners siloed and stunned. Because I'm completely woke to that problematic utilization, I'm sharing.
I trust that was about as clear as covfefe?
Truth is, I had to work hard to write that jargon-filled paragraph. While I love the sound and nuance of some seven-dollar words, I'm also a fan of plain speaking. "Checkerboard" communicates better than "tessellated," but there's really no substitute for "schadenfreude."
I have been accused, with considerable justification, of being a member of the grammar police. The Urban Dictionary defines that term as someone who corrects bad grammar and spelling online. Guilty as charged.
When researching the term, I was relieved to learn that the Grammar Police are not affiliated with more-strident Grammar Nazis. I was also intrigued to learn that my stance is more akin to a Grammar Panther, one who recognizes more than one linguistic standard. Grammar panthers recognize the use of ebonics and colloquialisms and make sure folks get those right. Far be it from me to turn a "wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie" into a frightened mouse, but don't misquote poet Robert Burns in my vicinity.
I will borrow from him to say that contemporary English has "gang aft agley."
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Late journalist Edwin Newman, one of my journalistic heroes, wittily warned us that our language was becoming trivialized trick phrases, jaded with jargon and gooped up with the gelatinous verbiage of Washington and the social sciences. In his two best-known books, "Strictly Speaking: Will America be the Death of English" (1974) and a "Civil Tongue" (1974), Newman deplored phrases of the ilk I threw around so unstintingly in my opening paragraph. He skewered that sort of language because "it is leaden, it is awkward, it groans with false dignity."
Even though Newman was writing long before the invention of the internet, the smart phone and the Roomba — and many other tech inventions that have sparked the spread of a whole cross-platform plethora of buzzwords — nothing much has changed. Doublespeak and jargon rule.
There's even an app for it. Nowadays, when you're trapped in a boring dog-and-pony show, you can play Buzzwords Bingo on your smartphone. (Back in the day, we did that with paper and ink.)
Recently, on Facebook, my buddy Ken Ward invited friends to share the phrases that most irritated them. Ken's list: "unpack, siloed, granular, weaponize, inflection point, game changer, pivot, optics, and legacy _________ (fill in the blank)."
Ken's friends contributed a list of terms that made my skin itch: hack, life hacks, robust, trending, scalable, loop me in, going forward, orientated, linkage and utilize. (The word is "oriented." Adding an extra syllable to "link" doesn't make you smarter. And you don't need to say you "utilized" an electric toothbrush to convince me that you went to college.) "Literally," as it's often thrown around, drives me figuratively up the wall. An example of this particular misuse: "The congressman was so agitated, he had us literally dancing on the ceiling." (Those of us here "on the ground" think that gravity intervened.)
In the Facebook chain, Anaïs Tuepker noted, "Everybody with a new service or business seems to want to tell me about the 'secret sauce' that makes their school or hospital or some other thing so special." Use this phrase, she warns, and "we can't be friends."
Michael Horan toted up these offending words: community, closure, journey, dialogue, honor, discourse and workshop, particularly when used as a verb. ("Let's workshop this and unpack it down to a granular level.")
Zach Roberts turned in a masterful mash-up by writing: "Let me unpack my thoughts on that. To not use certain words is to weaponize others. The real game-changer here would be to pivot to new ones, keep the old ones siloed and move away from those legacy media optics."
In his books, the witty and articulate Edwin Newman lampooned the language of sportscasters, who frequently cross the foul line, linguistically speaking. He devoted a full chapter in one of his books to their foibles, titling it "Real Good Speed." In the '70s, "real good speed" meant fast.
If Newman hadn't died in 2010, he would now be writing about how football commentators have discovered the word "wherewithal." That word refers to financial resources. Novelist Henry Fielding used the word correctly in 1742 by writing, "When your ladyship's livery was stript off, he had not wherewithal to buy a coat." Nowadays, pundits use the word to describe players whose multi-million dollar contracts give them the wherewithal to buy my worldly goods several times over. In sentences that sound something like this: "He's got the wherewithal to play real smash-mouth football."
Maybe I'm just old school, operating on a legacy platform or heedless of what's trending. Whatever. Buzzwords annoy me bigly.
Nicolette Toussaint lives in Carbondale. Her column appears monthly.