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The Rise and Fall of Vogue Words

In the last two weeks, on various radio and television programs, I have heard the word granular used no less than five times, in sentences like “The commission was hoping for a granular analysis of the problem.”

The word got my attention, but I didn’t know what it was supposed to mean. All I knew was that the pundits who said “granular” were not talking about actual granules or particles or grainy surfaces.

I looked up granular on the regularly updated online American Heritage dictionary, and found this: “Having a high level of detail, as in a set of data: a more granular report that shows daily rather than weekly sales figures.”

Are we witnessing the birth of a new fad word? We’ll see if granular catches on—it’s off to a pretty good start.

Language watchers have taken notice. One of them groused on the internet: “What is wrong with using words we already have available, like specific versus general and detailed versus summary? There is no good reason to posit another meaning of ‘granular’ simply in order to sound more attuned to the latest fad in management … This impoverishes the language.”

In 1926, the linguist Henry Fowler coined vogue word to describe a word that emerges “from obscurity” to become inexplicably popular. “It is often, but not necessarily, one that by no means explains itself to the average man, who has to find out its meaning as best he can.” Fowler added, “Ready acceptance of vogue words seems to some people the sign of an alert mind; to others it stands for the herd instinct and lack of individuality.”

Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage has a substantial list of vogue words and phrases that includes downsize, empower, proactivesynergy, user-friendly, at the end of the day, and worst-case scenario. These have all made the transition from fresh and edgy to stale and tedious. Today’s catchiest vogue words and phrases will be tomorrow’s clichés. The rest of them just wear out and vanish after a period of manic overuse by the public.

Many vogue words are lifted from science, technology, and academia. People use these imposing expressions with little or no understanding of their meanings. Why say it raises the question when saying it begs the question sounds smarter? But to beg the question means something else entirely: it is a scholarly term for reaching unwarranted conclusions.

And why say limits or boundaries when you can wow ’em with parameters, which made a splashy debut as a vogue word a few decades ago. Soon after the word took off, the language scholar Theodore Bernstein wrote, “Parameter is a mathematical term … that many people are using—correction: misusing—to sound technical and impressive.”

Finally, let’s not overlook the commercial potential of trendy language. If big corporations co-opt vogue words to move products, that’s just savvy marketing. A fast-food chain now offers an Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich. At first glance it looks like any other assembly-line sandwich, but I know it’s artisan—that means good, right?—because it says so in big capital letters right there on the cardboard packaging.

—Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, April 19, 2016, at 7:54 pm


When Branding Undermines Spelling

• Spring is in the air, which means that in America, major-league baseball is on the air. In San Francisco, two members of the hometown Giants’ broadcast team are former major-leaguers Mike Krukow (pronounced CREW-ko) and Duane Kuiper (KY-per). The team’s publicity department refers to these popular announcers as “Kruk” and “Kuip,” which we are meant to pronounce “cruke” and “kipe.” But baseball greenhorns see “Kruk” and “Kuip” and say “cruck” and “quip.”

• In Hollywood, good things have started to happen for a talented young entertainer called King Bach, who got his start by making YouTube videos.

Most readers over thirty will look at the name and pronounce it “King Bock.” But once you learn that the young man’s real name is Andrew Bachelor, you realize that “Bach” is supposed to rhyme with match.

Why the haywire spelling of celebrity nicknames nowadays?

The culprit is “branding,” which a business website defines as “the process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product in the consumers’ mind.” By the way, note the cynicism lurking in that phrase “consumers’ mind”—shouldn’t it be “minds”? Evidently, marketing departments view the public as little more than a pliable homogeneous organism.

Why can’t Krukow and Kuiper be “Kruke” and “Kipe”? And why doesn’t Andrew Bachelor call himself “King Batch”? Apparently, a commandment of branding is that you may lop letters off if it makes the moniker more catchy, but you must not alter the spelling to make the pronunciation more reader-friendly, because that would taint the brand and perplex the pliable homogeneous organism.

Subverting long-established conventions of phonetic spelling with sobriquets like “King Bach” and “Kruk” and “Kuip” may irk some of us, but these corporate misspelling tactics mirror the popular culture’s penchant for glib but irrational abbreviations. Consider the mass acceptance of “mic,” which has been driving word nerds batty for years.

“Mic” is a bogus abbreviation of microphone. (Chances are, your neighborhood pub has a regular “open mic” night on its calendar.) But for decades before the intrusion of “mic,” the word was mike: “Ike is good on a mike” went a line from a popular early-1950s jingle about presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower.

There is also a verb to mike, meaning “to place a microphone near.” But if you buy into “mic,” what would the past tense of “to mic” be? Was the speaker micd? mic’d? miced?

A bicycle is a bike, not a “bic.” So let’s get over this dopey notion that a microphone is a “mic.”

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Posted on Monday, April 4, 2016, at 6:32 pm


Resolutions for Word Nerds

Below you’ll find our New Year’s resolutions for self-appointed guardians of the English language. We language cops need our own code of ethics to protect us from ourselves and shield others from our self-righteousness.

The Stickler’s Ten Commandments for 2016

1) Thou shalt proofread. Proofreading your work is a dying art—but why is that? Do we really think that everything we write is effortlessly perfect on the first try?

2) No correcting someone’s informal correspondence. If you get an email that says, “We just want whats our’s,” stifle that impulse to respond with a dissertation on apostrophes. Maybe your correspondent is just kidding around—or didn’t proofread.

3) … And casual conversation gets a lot of leeway too. Language purists ought to ease off when people are just relaxing and making small talk. No one ever mistook a Super Bowl bash for a summit conference.

4) No using fancy words when simpler ones will do. A barrage of big words is impressive the way a mesomorph bench pressing six hundred pounds is impressive.

5) Always look it up. Twenty-first century technology makes it quick and painless to look up words like mesomorph. But for whatever reason, most people just won’t do it.

6) No correcting strangers. Grownups are so touchy nowadays.

7) Do correct your kids’ grammar. It’s not belittling if you do it right; they may even thank you someday. The English they hear all the time—from their peers, the media, even some teachers—sets a horrid example. Good English deserves equal time.

8)But keep it private. Never give grammar lectures within earshot of innocent bystanders or service animals.

9) No excuses when you slip. We all make mistakes. If you’re nailed red-handed, don’t try to wiggle out of it.

10) Know what you’re talking about. Here is something your English teacher never told you: the rules change. So before you cry foul, how do you know you’re right? There are many myths about “proper” English floating around.

A century ago, contact as a verb was banned in polite society, and anyone who said, “I will contact you soon” was dismissed as a philistine. In the 1970s, hopefully was considered a ghastly vulgarity, and anyone who said, “Hopefully, the disco won’t be too crowded tonight” could be ostracized from the cool crowd. Today, no one has a problem with contact or
hopefully … but you may find yourself ostracized for saying “disco.”

• Do you have your own “commandments” to add to the list? Please send them in. We would enjoy receiving and sharing them.

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Posted on Tuesday, January 5, 2016, at 11:09 am


They Never Said That

The popular culture has always had an uncanny ability to misuse, misinterpret, misrepresent, and misquote. Its adherents believe that Columbus discovered America and George Washington had wooden teeth and dog saliva cleanses flesh wounds.

The other day I heard a goofy radio guy say, “Till death do we part.” He thought “do us part” was ungrammatical. (He was wrong: it’s not we who are doing the parting. The line means “until death parts us.”)

Here are some other familiar sayings that have run into a little turbulence along the way …

“Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink. The words “and not a” can’t be found in the famous couplet from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798). Here is how Coleridge wrote it: “Water, water, everywhere, / Nor any drop to drink.”

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. There are several memorable lines from Alexander Pope’s 1711 poem “An Essay on Criticism.” This is almost one of them. But Pope wrote that “a little learning” is a dangerous thing. Knowledge and learning are hardly synonyms.

“Gild the lily” is supposedly from Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John. The correct quotation is, “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily.”

• “Come up and see me some time” was actress Mae West’s signature line, but the bodacious blonde didn’t say it. In She Done Him Wrong (1933), Ms. West says to Cary Grant, “Why don’t you come up some time and see me.”

“Play it again, Sam. That line might put a lump in your throat if you’ve ever seen the 1942 movie Casablanca. But it’s nowhere to be found in that great film. What Ingrid Bergman says is, “Play it once, Sam. For old times’ sake.”

“Elementary, my dear Watson.” Everyone knows this patronizing utterance by Sherlock Holmes to his overmatched colleague Dr. Watson, but the line appears nowhere in any of the books and tales by Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I’m told it comes from the 1929 film The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Watson says, “Amazing, Holmes.” Holmes replies, “Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary.”

“Beam me up, Scotty” was never said by William Shatner’s Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek TV series.

“Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast.” This is a misquotation from William Congreve’s play The Morning Bride. Congreve (1670-1729) wrote “savage breast,” not “beast.” I’m guessing the error can be attributed in part to good old American prudery, as demonstrated by this passage from a recent newspaper column: “He actually wrote ‘the savage breast.’ But this being a family newspaper, we went with the popular misquote.” Very good, sir. And tonight’s special is mesquite-grilled chicken chest.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, November 24, 2015, at 2:09 pm


Euphemisms: Lying to Us Gently

Let’s talk about euphemisms, those soothing words meant to assure us that something’s not as bad as we know it is. A euphemism is a lullaby, a sedative, a velvet glove enfolding reality’s iron fist. In a way, the word euphemism is itself a euphemism—so much kinder and gentler than cop-out.

Euphemisms are employed for many reasons, some of them nobler than others. The ultimate euphemism is pass away. “He passed away” sounds peaceful, effortless. “He’s dead” is a two-syllable gut punch.

Nonetheless, there are those who are temperamentally unsuited for hiding stark truths behind fluffy words. In the 1944 film This Happy Breed a patriarch tells his family: “Mother died. She didn’t pass on, pass over, or pass out. She died.”

A euphemism can transform a narcissist into a temperamental perfectionist, a bigot into a traditionalist, or an unhinged demagogue into a passionate idealist.

It’s not surprising that we find some really clever euphemisms in politics, where double-talkers known as spin doctors speak of collateral damage and enhanced interrogation. It’s not an invasion, it’s an intervention or an incursion or sometimes an uncontested arrival. Terrorists are freedom fighters—if they’re on our side. Our opponents lie; our allies may have misspoken.

Then there are those Wall Street peculators whose malfeasance still has the country reeling. The financial world likes to couch its mischief in opaque phrases like subprime mortgage bonds and collateralized debt obligations. One of our favorite Wall Street euphemisms is overleveraged, a mealy-mouthed term for expanding too fast, borrowing too much, and defaulting on the debt.

Alcohol’s prominent and often problematic place in society has given rise to many colorful euphemisms: Bertie is lit up like Broadway. He just got back from the old watering hole. He was talking to John Barleycorn. Now he’s got his wobbly boots on.

Here are a few more choice euphemisms, some common, others less so:

Nail technician  A manicurist.

Hair stylist  Are there still barbers?

Personnel surplus reduction  Means you’re fired.

Sampling  “The process of taking brief segments of sound (from a song, movie or elsewhere) and using that sound to form another sound or musical piece.” That’s how UrbanDictionary.com defines sampling. We can define it in one word: stealing.

But the winner by a landslide …

Atlantic triangular trade  A few years ago the Texas State Board of Education voted to use this Machiavellian phrase in history textbooks to replace slave trade.

When it comes to euphemism-wielding prevaricators, the Texas State Board of Education is in a class by itself.

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Posted on Tuesday, September 8, 2015, at 10:34 am