Clippings: Looking for the right word? Choose wisely
In my summers between college semesters I worked for a construction contractor in Southern Vermont, performing work that didn’t require much skill, so much as basic knowledge of what end of the hammer to hold. I did everything from hanging sheetrock to demolition. I even helped raise an organ factory from the 19th century to build a new foundation under it.
One of the most important lessons learned from those sweltering summers was the importance of taking care of the tools I worked with. We routinely checked blade guards, extension cords, staging, air compressors and everything else we used. These checks kept us safe (or within OSHA compliance) and let us work efficiently.
While I haven’t handled a rotary hammer in years, some habits die hard. Today, while I’m working with cameras, voice recorders and Twitter, I still find it important to routinely check one of the most important tools at my disposal: a strong vocabulary.
Just as doctors use surgical-quality steel, and craftspeople check equipment for signs of wear, I’d like to see our written and spoken language held to a higher standard.
Just like you wouldn’t perform open-heart surgery with a steak knife, you wouldn’t describe a sandwich from McDonald’s as “artisanal” (note: actual example).
The right word, just like the right tool, is highly important.
While plainly incorrect use is wince-worthy, seeing the same thin selection of words repeatedly used in the same trite expressions is just as frequent and requires immediate rectification. This laziness is as easily detected as a pair of old socks at the bottom of a gym bag: stale and fetid.
When the only conceivable way to describe a small Vermont town is “quintessential,” and its characters are always “quirky,” reading and writing become tiresome tasks devoid of any of the color, strength or vividness they rightfully deserve. Blatant misuse or overuse of a handful of words has a dulling effect on the words and on the work to which they’re hastily applied.
At the risk of being too forward, I’ve assembled a personal “rogues gallery” of overused words that sits above my desk on a series of sticky notes. It’s 16 words long and grows every week by one or two entries.
Here are six particularly egregious examples.
“Authentic” is the advertising copywriter’s latest paramour. The average consumer is hungry for “authentic” goods and services and a rush is under way to position everything from bed and breakfasts to flannel shirts as the forerunners of all other flannel shirts and bed and breakfasts that followed.
But authenticity is one of those tricky claims where if the writer feels the desire to use it, then they probably don’t have the right. Deploying “authentic” doesn’t enrich the items, it makes them seem pretentious and corny. When something’s “authentic,” you’ll know it when you see it.
People like to slap the word “natural” on bags of potato chips or soda because of an unfortunate connotation with “healthy.” It’s a clever ruse that places it alarmingly close to its distant cousin “organic.” It’s important to distinguish between the two; organic foods are certified in the U.S. by the Department of Agriculture and have stringent standards for any food bearing the label. Cobra venom and asbestos dust are “natural” as well, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good for you.
I was in line at the grocery store last week when I overheard a young woman squawk into her iPhone, “The party was literally three hours of hell.”
For having endured three hours in the underworld, I had to say she looked all right. “Literally” is an interesting case because of a flip from its from meaning free of exaggeration or distortion to being a means of exaggeration.
When “unique” hits paper, the writer meant something was different but was too lazy or in too much of a hurry to go into more detail. It’s a shame, because any hope of elaboration stops right there and the reader is left to just take the author’s word that the circus or the rock concert was just blandly “unique.” We ought to try harder. Instead, say the clowns juggled chainsaws and or the lead guitarist smashed his guitar through an amplifier. Those details matter and the reader will thank you for including them.
This is a top pick on tourism websites and is applied to just about every church steeple, downtown and diner from Brattleboro to Newport (see also, “iconic” and “quintessential”). My grudge against “charming” isn’t just that it’s used too much, it’s that it reduces our whole state to a stereotype — a kind of enchanted snow village that I find patronizing. Call me a curmudgeon, but I prefer the whole picture — warts and all.
When British Petroleum, Shell, Monsanto or Boeing begins making promises about “a greener tomorrow,” “clean-burning” or “a greener alternative,” my patented B.S. Radar begins to go off the charts. It could be a habit I’ve picked up during my few years in this business, but I’ve become more aware of when a corporate entity is whitewashing with a green-colored brush.
So what’s to be done?
To return to my earlier anecdote, when a tool got to be worn or damaged, we either sent it to the repair shop or tossed it into the trash. In this case, I suggest we dust off the thesaurus and find some alternatives to words like unique, authentic or iconic and start calling out the semantic wordplay with green, natural and countless others. The work is necessary and the stakes are high, because in the end, it’s about taking a little pride in your craft.
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