Fad Words And Their War Against The English Language

Fad words and phrases sweep through newsrooms with the regularity of the tides. We man, not “journal,” but we are quick to embrace phrases such as “no-brainer,” which spread with a rapidity that seemed to be proof of its content.

It happened sometime in 1994, when the word “simple” simply disappeared from the newsroom. Everything self-evident became a “no-brainer.” In the process, we lost not only “simple” and self-evident,” but also obvious,” “logical “clear,” “apparent,” “evident” and “straightforward

Not that no-brainer” didn’t originally have some value as a fresh figure of speech. The wretch who coined it created a term with obvious appeal.

The 500th was merely a hack, however, someone who callously dismissed George Orwell’s first rule of writing: “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.”

Which is not to say that we should resist any change in the language. As even the flintiest of word purists concede, the beauty of English is its infinite capacity to embrace a growing and changing culture.

Computer technology has enriched English with dozens of new terms. Hardly anybody now blanches at “access” as a verb. And the idea of surfing the Net” has a sense of freewheeling panache that would be hard to duplicate. Other technologies contribute their own rich neologisms. “Boort box.” “Jet ski.””Frisbee.’ “Hovercraft.”

Theodore M. Bernstein suggested a practical test for separating word wheat from chaff. “We should apply the test of convenience,” he said. “Does the word fill a real need? If it does, let’s give it a franchise.”

Fad words never fill real needs. Take “venue,” the fad word of the decade. It now applies to any performance space – a nightclub, auditorium, gymnasium, ice rink …. You name it. And it is precisely the fact that the specific terms exist that makes venue” so unnecessary.

Besides, you can visualize a gym. Try forming a mental picture of a venue.”

Or of a slippery slope, for that matter. Slippery slopes have filled the op-ed pages for the past two years.

You might say that slippery slopes are “the buzz” around editorial offices. That term subs for everything from “hot gossip” to “excitement” to conventional wisdom.” Its lack of precision no doubt dooms it to the fate of relics such as “groovy” and “awesome.”

“Step up,” will surely burn itself out, as well. It’s still on the upswing, having spread from sports into the rest of the newsroom. But it apparently means nothing more than volunteer” or “take responsibility for.”

“With attitude” is another one of those bits of contemporary slang that seem likely to die the slow death of vagueness. does it mean, really? If a piece of writing has “attitude,” it apparently has what we’ve always called “voice.” Or maybe it’s just opinionated. Which makes you wonder why we can’t just call it opinionated.’

Or terminally opinionated. “Terminal” and “terminally” are the year’s fad modifiers, and they pop up connected to everything from “boring” to hip.”

You also might say that “terminally” has turned up on the fad radar screen. Alas, “radar screen” – which carried cachet in 1940 – now seems as dated as a P-40.

It’s certainly not a “work in progress,” which was the all-purpose excuse of 1994. Anything short of perfection was a “work in progress,” a good-faith effort that would eventually rise to the level of actual success.

Unfortunately, nobody stepped up to helm us clear of such a seductive cliche. Too bad. “Helmed,” like “journaled,” is pretentious to the point of foolishness.

But the appearance of pretense is the least of the sins flowing from fad English.

Word fads can cripple the language because they operate by a kind of verbal Gresham’s Law. Fad words are almost always vague. And vague words drive their more specific alternatives out of our common vocabulary. Every time we adopt a fad word, we lose, by at least some small measure, our ability to discriminate and communicate.

And that’s a damned sliperry slope.

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