Column: The word police are on patrol: look out!

01/06/2018 5:58 AM |

It’s time for the annual report on how English — the language of Shakespeare, Emerson, Joyce and professor Irwin Corey — fared in 2017.

Going forward, there’s a lot to unpack since many parts are baked in and we certainly don’t want to kick the can down the road or throw someone under the bus.

If you’ve had a reaction to that sentence that’s similar to hearing the scream of a dentist’s drill about to be involved with one of your canines — tooth, not pooch — then you know the language is in trouble. The words and phrases used above once added zest to our daily discourse, but are now doomed to do time in the cliché jail. Why, word scolds ask, can’t we return to “the future,” “explain,” “inseparable,” “procrastinate,” or “betray”?

Government at all levels offers ripe fields for harvesting clichés and mangled language; it’s always fun to go snarky on harmless idiocies and blather. But now something sinister is afoot, with the Trump administration considering the banishment of certain words for ideological reasons. Reports indicate that the Centers for Disease Control is preparing a mob hit on “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

Somewhere, George Orwell is weeping.

Snarky, by the way — a flawless word that combines sound with meaning — was expropriated from Lewis Carroll who, along with his colleague, James Joyce, was never happier than when turning language on its ear. Carroll portmanteau-ed a snake and a shark to create a new animal, the “snark,” perfectly describing our modern notion of souped-up sarcasm.

Breaking news: Lake Superior State University in Sault Sainte Marie, Mich., has released its 42nd annual “List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness.”

Guesstimate makes the 2017 cut from the cold-eyed Michigan word constables. Guesstimate should be used, LSSU says, “when guess and estimate are never enough.”

Also to be deep-sixed, according to the LSSU fanatics, are:

Echo chamber, which is described as “lather, rinse, repeat. After a while everything sounds the same.”

Disruption: “When humanity looks back on zombie buzzwords, they will see disruption bumping into other overused synonyms for change.”

Listicle: “Numbered or bulleted list created to generate views on the web, LSSU’s word banishment list excluded.”

Merriam-Webster has enshrined feminism as its 2017 Word of the Year.
Somewhere, Elizabeth Cady Stanton is cheering.

I heard from an old friend, language samurai David Lozell Martin, who is also a journalist, editor and best-selling author of a dozen novels and one of the best modern American memoirs, “Losing Everything.”

In a dispatch from his fortress on the Delmarva Peninsula (named for the brave and noble Delmarva tribe), Mr. Martin considered the desecrations people inflict on English during the season of lights.

“The holiday season brings a fresh load of horrors for those of us who respect the proper use of the language, grammar and punctuation,” he wrote. “Party invitations are a particular pain for me. I’ll use some examples from invitations I’ve received over the years:

The Smith’s would like to invite you to our Holiday party.

“There’s nothing possessive about the Smiths in that sentence so no apostrophe is called for. Some people apparently believe the ‘s’ and the apostrophe are married and always go together. They don’t.

“Also in that sentence, the Smiths saying they ‘would like’ to invite me sounds as if they’re about to give a reason why they can’t invite me even though they would like to. Just say, ‘The Smiths invite you …’ı

“Finally, ‘holiday’ is not a proper noun and shouldn’t be capitalized.”

Our annual holiday bash is held every year on December 26, the day after Christmas.

“This one causes my eyes to roll back in my head. If the holiday bash is annual, we don’t have to be told it’s held every year, just as we don’t have to be reminded that Dec. 26 is the day after Christmas.”

And remember, bring your ‘favorite’ beverage and we’ll supply all the food.

“Another ignorant use of sneer or irony quotes. These quotes are properly used when the writer wants to signal to the reader that a word or phrase is being used ironically: ‘The “civilization” that Europeans brought to Native Americans included death, disease and removal from native lands.” We know from the quotes around ‘civilization’ that the writer is using that word to mean the opposite of what it should mean.

“So when I’m told to bring my ‘favorite’ beverage, should I bring something I hate to drink?

“I no longer send detailed corrections to the people who sent me these flawed invitations. For some reason, the invitations have dried up. I stay home alone, happy as a clam with my favorite beverage and a copy of Garner’s Modern American Usage.”

To put a bow on this, so to speak, we’ll leave it to T.S. Eliot:

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language

And next year’s words await another voice.

The author is the editor of the Shelter Island Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].