Friday, December 21, 2012

SMH at the Atlantic Wire's "Worst Words" List (+ Some Links)

Word snobs are the new grammar nazis, which I guess makes ageist squeamishness the new literacy privilege. It's become "a thing" (or was this always a thing?), at the close of the year, when in full list-making mode, to make grandiose announcements about which words and phrases are officially terrible and should be retired, so we can move into the future with unsullied vocabs.

The Atlantic Wire, the "what matters now"(!) division of the ever-insufferable Atlantic, is on top of the trend and has published an A to Z list of the "worst words" of 2012. The list of words we're supposedly supposed to stop using includes such common interjections as "really" (really?!) and "ugh," basic concrete nouns like "hashtag," "vagina" (these things just mean what they mean, folks, those are the words for those things) and "quinoa" (clearly included simply because they chose the odious alphabet format), as well as brilliant acronyms like "TLDR" and "YOLO." What do these humorless pricks have against slang? Naturally, "hipster" is on there, but isn't it tres hipster to denounce a term just because it's popular or, as they say of the portmanteau, has "jumped the shark"? (No longer are we denouncing only single terms, whole categories of word formation get the boot.)

I'm just going to object to their objections on a couple of these:

Ping: They quote someone from Gizmodo saying "I hate ping because it means the exact same thing as contact. There's no difference between ping and contact." A) "Contact" itself is a perfect example of language change, since it used to be a noun and then got verbed, much like "impact" (another word that the word snobs frequently "ding"). Why can't you let the language change?! B) "Ping" and "contact" are not the same, because tone matters. "Contact" sounds needlessly formal in the context in which people use the word "ping." You might tell a job applicant that you'll "contact" them within 2 weeks, but you tell your chummy coworker to "ping" you when they have those slides ready. It's a workplace-specific "LMK."

Slacks: I feel like most word snobbery comes down to a kind of ageism. When you're young, you hate words that old people use. When you're old, you hate words that young people use. "Slacks" belongs to the former category. Why else would people hate this word? I think it's cute and funny and, like "trousers," it conjures a particular kind of pant, so it's not purely synonymous with "pants." I also support "blouse" and "hose" and even the once-detested "panties," though I still don't and can't use it to refer to my own undergarments with a straight face.

I give them "glocal" which sounds stupid but honestly, I had never heard it before reading the list. But I don't understand the problem with Urban Dictionary-style neologisms like "butt-chugging," "brogrammer" and "YOLO." These words are hilarious! I mean, don't these stodgy journos realize that words like this are always already ironic? At least half the time, they are used with camp.

And can somebody tell me what is wrong with the word "moist"? It's not on this particular list, but this perfectly serviceable word is so despised that someone suggested we refer to well-made baked goods by synonyms like "hydrated" and "spongy." All I can say is, Ugh. Keep your hydrated, spongy pumpkin bread well away from me.

OK, enough of that. I have a couple of links to share with you. I have a few new poans up in the December issue of Everyday Genius, guest-edited by Sandra Simonds. This is one of them:

What I miss about childhood is awe – the filter of inexperience, without the further filter of inadequacy, shame. But shame, a friend told me, can be comforting. Adulthood is knowing that someone is watching, an increasing sensation of things being fixed. When I hear the song for the second time, what I like is its familiarity. It has not become more beautiful, nor have I gained access to its beauty.


In honor of the end, Dustin Luke Nelson put together The Last Reading on Earth, Ever: A Marathon Reading of Apocalyptic Writing, including video readings by Amaranth Borsuk, Heather Christle, Amelia Gray, Matt Hart, Becca Klaver, Michael Martone, Joseph Michael Owens, Christopher Salerno, Bianca Stone, Mathias Svalina, Maureen Thorson, Rachel Zucker and many more, including me (reading "Pitville," a poem I co-wrote with Kathleen Rooney; it appears in That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness). I seem very sad in the video, but I guess that's appropriate for the end of the world. You can watch all the videos on the InDigest Mag tumblr, or on YouTube.

Love to you all, and a happy new year.


  1. "Spongy" -- esp. in the early modern variant "spungy" -- is an excellent word; one reacts viscerally to it. I have never understood the problem with "moist" though I suppose it conjures up faint notions of clamminess. I do dislike "ping" though; it's not a word I'd ever use, and it oozes a kind of inauthentic informality.

    1. I totally approve of "spongy" as a word, but it means something totally different from "moist"! And no one wants spongy cake, even if it's sponge cake. (What IS sponge cake, anyway?)

      I appreciate the onomatopoeic quality of "ping" -- I imagine an IM window popping up.

      I think the "moist" aversion is pure prudery, honestly; it's associated with lady sex parts.

  2. Oddly enough, people who have a problem with the word "moist" almost always also have a problem with the word "ointment." I'm told that there's an episode of RadioLab which parses the entire issue, apparently announcing it to be an aural condition wherein the vowel combination "oi," when followed by a consonant cluster consisting of a non-stop consonant (such as the nasal "n" or the sibiliant "s") preceding a "t," triggers something in those suffering from this problem and it's akin to nails on the proverbial dark writing surface.

    That said, I know a slew of people who hate both words and only one who has no qualms with the word "ointment," so there may be something to their theory.

    Related: There are words (and phrases) that I cannot stand--cannot even bear to say--but it always comes down to meaning and how I feel they are so overused while also being so undeserving of the concept which they're supposed to describe. I won't go into it, but suffice it to say that it usually involves a specific level of smarminess during usage that makes me cringe. And these are words/phrases people use in fiction all the time. I have a particular fondness for writers who avoid them. Obviously, it usually goes beyond that, but when I notice that a writer doesn't use these terms when they could have, my breath is jam-packed with relief.

    1. Wow, that's weird. I don't think I react to any words that way, just on the basis of the way they sound. I mean there are are words I dislike, but it's never like nails-on-chalkboard effect. The word "ointment" always reminds me of a line from a Julia Story poem: "Oinkment, he said sheepishly, the punchline to the first joke he learned in this crappy language."

      I would love to know what those words are. Sounds like my issue with the word "bright," which (I have said on these pages many times) is only ever used in the most condescending way to describe people you think are intelligent, but (obviously) not as intelligent as you. But the sound, of course, doesn't bother me; I like it when used in the sense of incandescent.

    2. I hadn't been aware that there are people who don't like the word "moist." I actually used the word in a poem I've been working on during the past week. (Note: I just used "actually," which is one of the words on the Atlantic Wire list.)

      I've never associated "moist" with "ointment" because of the sounds or for any other reason. I do, I guess, have a slight aversion to "ointment," probably because the word evokes (for me) medicinal smells, and (by extension) various medical procedures.

      The word "poignant" has a sound association with "ointment" for me. The do almost/kind of rhyme. And I associate "pungent" with "poignant," again because of the sounds. Though I don't particulary dislike or avoid "poignant" or "pungent." "Repugnant" is another word in the same cluster, though I don't dislike it either.

      If I were ever to offer a "let's stop using this word and/or phrase" list of my own, a couple of items that would be on my list are:

      "Mic," when it's short for "microphone" (as in "open mic" poetry reading), the reason being that "mike" (short for "microphone") is a word that's long been in use, so coining "mic" as a shorter form of "microphone" seems to me unnecessary.

      "Going forward" when it means "from now on" or some such. This phrase will here stand in for a long list of bureaucratic gobbledygook words I'd be happy to see disappear from the earth.

      "Bright" (used to mean incandescent or similar things) has long been one of my favorite words to use in poems.

      I have no opinion on "slacks."

    3. BTW, I have no idea what YOLO means. It's a new one on me.

    4. I love the word "poignant"! It didn't make my top 50, but it might have on another day. "The whole point of a stab wound is the poignant memory."

      YOLO means "You Only Live Once" :)

  3. Nice reading. I'd forgotten how apocalyptic that poem was!

    Also, I dislike the word "slacks" purely for how it sounds, which, to my ear, is ugly.

    1. I searched my docs for the word "apocalypse"! I knew we had to have something.

      Which part is ugly? Do you hate words that rhyme with slacks?

  4. Smart move.

    All of it. I don't mind words that start with "sl" and I don't mind the "a" sound or the "ck" sound at the end, but taken all in combo, it hits my ear as a mess of ugly. It's totally irrational, but I just don't like it.

    1. Poor little slacks. It's OK slacks, you're welcome here!

  5. 'Word snobs are the new grammar nazis, which I guess makes ageist squeamishness the new literacy privilege. It's become "a thing"...'If you write poetry, it's good to have an ear for contemporary American argot, but I find a sentence like that a little off-putting. Buzz words, buzz phrases in rapid succession. But when I was growing up, things I read and heard instilled me with an antipathy to slang. E.g., Bierce dedicating his Devil's Dictionary to "enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humor and clean English to slang." E.g., an English class in which we were discussing an elegy for a child, and a classmate referred to the child as a "kid," and the prof scolded him for using a word that "diminishes the grandeur of the poem." I don't purge my vocabulary of slang, and I hope I'm not humorless or stodgy--I could establish my street cred by slinging some hiphop lexicon if I felt like it. It's just that I suspect that the widespread notion that there's something pedantic about objecting to slang has exacerbated the tone-deafness to linguistic register I see everywhere. (Being a Writing and English teacher.)Appalling insensitivity to levels of diction. I think that's a sinister phenomenon.

    1. I was using buzzwords and -phrases on purpose as a kind of FU to the list-makers who prefer to list words they hate than words they love.

      A college student who doesn't understand where and when to use slang is very different from an adult journalist who probably has a graduate degree and objects to certain words on principle. Doncha think?

    2. They're different, fo shizzle. What I mean is that we have so-called college students writing "Vronsky was a total fuckstick" in a formal literary paper because they don't know what slang and colloquialisms are. They don't know what levels of diction are. And I suspect that their ignorance is fomented in part by linguistic inclusivists dismissing detractors of slang as puritanical classists and canape-nibbling prigs.

      I don't like the way I'm sounding, so I'm going to shut up now.

    3. And I suspect that their ignorance is fomented in part by linguistic inclusivists dismissing detractors of slang as puritanical classists and canape-nibbling prigs.

      Sorry to use an item from the list but ... Really?!?! No, I'm sorry, but there is absolutely no way these kids are reading my blog or Language Log and that's where they're getting their ideas. Occam's Razor: Most students are ignorant and lazy, that's enough to explain why they don't grasp levels of diction.

      Anyway, if I got a paper that said "Vronsky was a total fuckstick" I'd laugh, especially if it was coupled with well-argued points. Most student papers fail to even be coherent before they bother to get the diction wrong.

  6. Having just read the A to Z list, I feel like saying that such ephemera as overused portmanteaux irritate me but don't concern me much. What concern me are tenacious solecisms and more heinous crimes against the American language. When people say the following, I feel like punching them in the face:

    As far as money, I'm doing okay.
    That said, she has a few good traits.
    A street of opulent homes.
    My thought process is, you need to punch up your letter of interest.
    At the end of the day, it's location that matters.

    The list could be longer.

    1. Is there a pattern there or are these unrelated?

    2. I wasn't trying for a pattern, but there may be one. I'm decrying insensitivity to cliché and jargon. A thoughtless use of language--a lack of affection for language-- characteristic of the uneducated.

    3. Uh oh, your literacy privilege is showing! ;)

      "That said" strikes me as a genuinely useful construction and not a cliche.

    4. Well, you have a few compensatory traits.

  7. My only objection to "moist" is its over-use in cake mix commercials of a decade or two ago. Moist cake appeared to be a terribly important life goal.

    I would argue that "ping" does not have the same meaning as "contact", though perhaps it's a subset of methods of contact. I still think of a computer "ping" when I use the word, and to me a computer ping just means, "Are you still alive and capable of responding?" It's an extremely brief and content-free contact.

    1. Yes, terribly important!

      I too think "ping" is somehow inherent connected to computers. You don't ping someone over the phone.