Gimme Shelter: Words, words, words


Only a week into 2015 and I’m already cranky.

The only comfort to take is that there are many of us out here — grumps, sourpusses, all classes of misanthropes — and our ranks are swelling. I’m talking about what our own “Island Seniors” columnist Mimi Brennan is up to when she switches personas and becomes “The Grumpy Grammarian.”

But we take in a larger field than broken grammar, getting just as peeved at word usage. It’s not that we feel superior — well, we are after all — but that we suffer from a serious affliction. Just as the American Academy of Otolaryngology (no kidding) defines the condition of those who feel acute pain at everyday sound levels as suffering from “hyperacusis,” so we’ve got “pseudophrase-itis.”

Example: On hearing X say, “I reached out to Y,” we find ourselves screaming inside, “No, you called Y, damnit.”

All this reaching out, which, I admit with a cringe, I hear myself saying now and then, was a Pavlovian plot by the phone company in the 1980s, running ads imploring Americans to the tune of a nauseating jingle to, “Reach out, reach out and touch someone.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I always heard that as, “Reach out, reach out and touch yourself.”

Our affliction of pseudophrase-itis takes many forms, and has even been institutionalized — I must be careful with that characterization — by Lake Superior State University just publishing its 40th annual list of words and/or phrases that should be banished. This year “skill set” was cast into darkness by LSSU.

Makes sense. When did people stop having skills and acquired a set? It’s like  when I hear “price point.”

Didn’t “price” fit the bill?

Don’t get me started. Or, rather, try and stop me.

My brother Jack, an author and teacher, can’t hide a scowl hearing people using “closure” when speaking of grieving. We are always urged to find it ourselves or provide it to others, which is just another slaphappy view of life similar to reaching out and touching … you know.

I asked my friend David Lozell Martin, a journalist, editor and author of 13 books, about the state of the language and he responded, wearily, “Oh, my, sweet Jesus,” before revving up to condemnations that would have made Jeremiah blush.

“In the new year,” David said, “let us not hear or read a meeting or discussion ‘around’ something instead of ‘about’ something. Something centered ‘around’ something instead of centered ‘on’ something. Using ‘begs the question’ when you mean to say ‘raises the question,’ using ‘share’ a report or news instead of ‘give,’ ‘read,’ ‘explain’ or other logical verbs. ‘Preplanning’ for ‘planning.’ I could go on.”

He did.

“Can we start an especially vigorous action to save ‘literally?’ Once upon a time, it was a beautifully specific word that meant something that no other word meant in the same way. ‘Literally’ meant actually, specifically, exactly as stated. People used it incorrectly, of course, but the meaning was preserved in reference books for anyone to see and learn from. Now the stupid, glib Oxford Dictionary has given ‘figuratively’ as one of the definitions for ‘literally’ and we have officially lost one of the great words in our mother tongue. The Oxford fuzz-brains say they are simply reflecting how the language is actually used. Although these changes would reflect how the language is actually being used, if words no longer have specific meaning, we lose the ability to communicate accurately, elegantly, specifically.”

I’ll accept with gratitude his coinage of ‘fuzz-brains.’”

David once went to a reading of haiku, the super specific form of poetry that requires an exact number of syllables. When some guy got up and said he was going to read his haikus but his work didn’t conform to the rules, David walked out.

His wife was embarrassed. He didn’t care.

“It was like seeing someone,” David said, “walking a dog and asking, ‘What do you think of my cat?’”

People scoff at anyone who takes words seriously. To them, I offer some advice: Remember that one of the symptoms of pseudophrase-itis is often the tongue lodged firmly in the cheek.

You have to take yourself seriously, but then I remember an editor who liked to stroll through the newsroom at deadline with everyone desperately hammering away at their keyboards, chanting, “Blah, blah, blah.”

But if your copy contained clichés or begged questions incorrectly, he would be far from lighthearted.

Even howling prophets in the wilderness know that rearguard actions to save the language are doomed.

But they have the satisfaction of speaking correctly on their feet rather than reciting gibberish from their La-Z-Boys.