Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Words to delete from a serious vocabulary

Yeah, I know that language is dynamic. It has to be, because culture is dynamic and language is cultural symbolism. Think about it -- what we call words are really just combinations of sounds that come out of our mouths (and sometimes noses . . . and why does that often seem to happen when our mouths are full of some liquid?). There is no real difference between them and the sounds any other critter makes, EXCEPT we endow some of them with meaning. And meaning is always cultural. So, the sounds to which we ascribe meaning are symbolic -- their significance, that which differentiates them from sound without meaning, lies in their utility to represent -- symbolize -- cultural concepts.
Culture is always either dynamic or dead. Even if culture is dying, it's changing, so it's dynamic. Consequently, as one system of cultural symbolism, language is also dynamic. I suspect, although it's been years since my last linguistics class so I might be wrong, that we can gauge the rate of cultural change by the rate of language change. It's easy to ascribe the current state of American English to technology -- the availability and use of e-mail, instant messaging, phone texting, twitter (gag), and so on. Personally, I really dislike the now-accepted and constant use of abbreviations and numbers-for-words and so forth in on-the-fly messages that are supposed to pass for communication. Okay, sometimes I use them, but I feel ashamed when I do, so then I feel better. See how easy I am?
Anyway, the point is that these recent but now pervasive (and undesirable, in my opinion) changes in language are really the result of the rapidity of change in our overarching American culture (I might have to return to questions of "American culture" another time). A lot of that, of course, is related to the rapidity of technological change, which in many ways requires us to adapt how we accept and utilize innovations within the framework of culture. That is, adoption of technological innovation takes place within one's cultural milieu; if it can't be made relevant -- not just useful, but relevant -- to the potential user, it won't make it in. Why are rural, agricultural people often less than interested in small hybrid cars; why do suburban families hang onto their minivans rather than rushing to get Priuses? They're not relevant when you have to move hay bales to the cows, or you have to pick up yours and your neighbor's kids at school.
Okay, so I recognize that cultural dynamics are reflected in, among other things, language dynamics. For that reason, I also recognize that language change is inevitable. The structure of American English -- the grammar -- that I was taught in elementary school is being altered all around me. While my mother the English teacher would be appalled at how little I actually remember about diagramming sentences, I nonetheless appreciate a well-constructed sentence and a well-turned phrase. At the same time, I can appreciate and even find interesting some of the changes in grammar and meaning that are rampant. Ginger told me that "google" is the word of the decade for the 2000s. There's a word that didn't exist a few years ago and is now a standard addition in nearly everyone's vocabulary, both as a noun and a verb.
HOWEVER, dadgum it, there are some words and phrases that are simply too moronic to be allowed in ANYONE'S vocabulary, and I will not concede their use on the basis of cultural and linguistic change. I think a law should be passed to ban them and their usage, except in literary situations in which an author needs them to point out a character's banality. Before I list those at the top of my list, I should confess that I actually use a couple of them, having fallen prey, in moments of weakness in character and intellect, to the riptide of popular verbage. Mea culpa, and I will, if required, spend my time in stupid-word jail. Okay, here's the top of my list (I expect to add to it as time goes on):
  1. "like" There are, like, way too many times that, like, this little word with real comparative utility, like, gets thrown into sentences in, like, ways that make the speaker sound, like, really dumb. It's been made fun of for years on Saturday Night Live and yet people keep, like, using it.
  2. "amazing" If everything is amazing then nothing is amazing. Kindly limit the use of superlatives (look it up) to situations that are, in fact, amazing.
  3. "ohmygod" and it's relative "ohmygosh," which seems to be favored by people not wanting to break the third commandment. Firstly, these are three words, not one. Secondly, reacting to everything one encounters as though it requires personal communication with the Almighty -- or to whomever Gosh might be -- might actually be a violation of the third commandment. By the way, I sometimes use the second version, although I have no clue as to the identity or potential deity of Gosh.
  4. "him and I's" and "her and I's" If I should develop an aneurysm and it should burst, you may blame it on this one. "I" CANNOT be made into a possessive. "She and I" might own that car, but if she sells her part to me, it is mine, NOT I's. My sweetheart can vouch for the fact that, even though I know they can't hear me, I LOUDLY correct every person on TV who uses one of those phrases. "Her and I's date tonight was amazing." AAAARRRRGGGGGHHHHH . . . . . .
  5. "I mean" at the beginning of a sentence. As in someone asks a question and the responder begins his/her response by saying, "I mean . . . ," even though the question was not about someone's or something's meaning. This is a new form of "ummmm," a filler sound with no meaning that takes up time when one doesn't know what to say. I'm a big ummm-er, unfortunately.
  6. "Seriously" Seriously, folks, the rampant use of this word might have spread from Gray's Anatomy, or perhaps it got included in their scripts because it was already rampant. I also, unwittingly, found a place for this one in my vocabulary. Getting rid of it is about as hard for me as stopping nail biting. Seriously.
Okay, that'll do for now. I'm trying to decide about "dude." Like "like," "dude" came to the rest of us from valley girls and beach bums. I use it, like most folks, as an exclamatory. Dude! I remember when my high school friends and I decided that there should be gender equality, so we started calling people "dudes" and "dudettes." I also remember that most of them didn't like it and we stopped because of threats of physical violence . . . from both dudes and dudettes. It's hard on one's fragile, high-school, male ego to get beat down by a dudette.


  1. I'm scared to notice that I might be the fan of your site, sent from above to remind you of the realities of life...

    1. I mean, 2. seriously, 3. like who gives you the right to exclaim over the net that a post-modern vernacular is not 4. amazing? 5. Ohmygosh, it's 6. dudes like you that hold the evolution of post-modern thought back..

    Don't listen to this guy people.. Him and I (7.) use this type of language all the time.. But what do I know? I just "think about these things"


  2. I'm, like, rolling laughing! This is seriously, so amazing, and ummmmm, a wonderment of your drives to and from Santa Fe.

    I agree with you as to the deflowerment (my own word) of English grammar. Although, it would be well to bear in mind, the British already disdain our vernacular!

    Parts of me felt violated by your thoughts. My chronic use of like, amazing, seriously bothers me. Although my use of ummmm was seriously cut short by my years as a broadcasting student. Too bad they were not able to remove the rest of these moronic habits!

  3. I hate to follow up so much humor with dry teacher-talk, but here goes:

    The best advice I've ever been given regarding speaking: Silence sounds much better than any filler word or sound. Thoughtful pauses should not be feared, they make you sound intelligent. Fillers make you sound hesitant and show a lack of confidence.

  4. Meg passed your blog address on and I had to be nosy and see what roves around in your head. I am hooked--with you, Meg, and Miles (soon Ginger?) I'll have endless amusement. Thanks for the good thoughts, too. :)

  5. Post-modernism does not excuse dismal grammar. I'm just sayin'