Thursday, January 01, 2004

Irritating Words

According to an Associated Press story, Lake Superior State University has determined that the following words should be banned:
Metrosexual: An urban male who pays a great deal of attention to appearance.

X: As in “X-Files,” Xtreme, Windows XP and X-Box.

Punked: To dupe, popularized by the MTV show “Punk’d.”

Place Stamp Here: Printed on return envelopes.

Companion animals: Also known as pets.

Bling or Bling-Bling: Flashy jewelry.

LOL: E-mail speak for “laugh out loud.”

Embedded Journalist.

Smoking Gun.

Shock and Awe.

Captured Alive.

Shots Rang Out.

Ripped From the Headlines.

Sweat Like a Pig: The problem is pigs don’t sweat.

In Harm’s Way.

Hand-Crafted Latte.

Sanitary Landfill: Also known as a dump.

I share their annoyance with some: "X" and "LOL" have lost their edge, and "hand-crafted latte" always seemed pretentious.

I would have thought there's a difference between "companion animals" and pets. Companion animals would make sense as a description for working dogs, such as guide dogs for the blind and companion dogs for the deaf and wheelchair-bound. But when I Googled "companion animals," I found that most people just use it as a euphemism for "pets." And since all the companion animals by my definition were dogs anyway, why not just call them working dogs. Good call, Lake Superior State.

It's telling how many of the phrases on the list began as colorful figures of speech: "shots rang out," "in harm's way" and "ripped from the headlines" are the ones most fitting that description. Those were overused because they were such effective metaphors the first time. Down the line, they're not even used carefully, and the life has been wrung from the metaphor, and "shots rang out" gets to be more about a stock phrase than about a bell-like disturbance of gunfire. It's a trap I fall into myself, with "Wake up and smell the coffee" and "Hello?" When I'm writing, I need to watch for other people's metaphors and chop them relentlessly.

There are some other words and phrases I wish would go away: "share" as a synonym for public speaking; the political hyperbole of calling people Nazis and fascists without showing how the specific definition applies; all the variations on "weapons of mass destruction," such as "weapons of mass instruction" and "weapons of mass construction" -- they ceased being cute before they ever started; "whatever floats your boat."

Howver, I think Lake Superior State University has itself engaged in some hyperbole: the press release advocates "banning" the phrase "sweat like a pig" and the others. Isn't that a Draconian violation of First Amendment rights? Wouldn't it make more sense simply to say what they mean--that they want to draw attention to these phrases so that people will be more aware of how worn-out they sound, not to mention getting a little publicity for Lake Superior State?

"Truth in advertising" is another one that it would be nice if we mentioned less but practiced more.

More cliches are at Clich├ę and Cliche Finder.

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