I’m actually rather fond of Lake Superior State University’s annual List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness. The list is an endearing ironic reminder of our language’s indispensable freedom from strangulating academic authority. Nobody, thank God, can really “banish” English words, as the folks at LSSU know. And they know, too, that if there were scholars or philologists who had that power, they certainly wouldn’t be teaching at something called “Lake Superior State University”.
But every year, without fail, LSSU crucifies a few innocents. “Tweet”, for example, is included on this year’s list for just one explicit reason: people who don’t tweet are tired of hearing about Twitter. Unfortunately, there’s no alternative term for Twitter messages, which are an actually existing, clearly definable thing for which we do need a descriptor. It is too late, as it is with “blogs”, to insist that a more dignified term should have been chosen. The word “tweet” is in no sense ever mis-used, nor it is either over-used or useless. LSSU and the amateur pedants who contribute to the Banished List have it on there only because they don’t like Twitter. That’s not a language-usage argument; it’s obnoxiousness.
The Banishers also complain about the use of “friend” (and “unfriend”) as a verb; one correspondent, so self-evidently an old fart you can smell the stale methane from here, suggests replacing it with “befriend”. This bespeaks a complete misunderstanding of why people found a need to make “friend” a verb in the first place. We say “I befriended him” when we have actually become real-life friends with somebody; to “friend” a person is something very different—it means you are designating him a “friend” on a social-networking service. This distinction is useful, and no one who uses “friend” as a verb is ever confused about what he is doing. Even the stupidest speakers don’t actually use “friend” to mean “befriend”, and lots of us have electronic “friends” who aren’t friends in the primary meaning of the word.
In general, the 2009 list seems to compare unfavourably to its predecessors; one wonders if they are losing the plot a little over there in the Soo. “Teachable moment” may be a banishably mangled cliché, but whoever wrote dismissively that “it might otherwise be known as ‘a lesson’” doesn’t belong anywhere near a usage committee, even a toy usage committee. The phrase refers to an opportunity for a lesson. The whole point is that the opportunity to teach one may be missed.
And are people really so fed up with the word “bromance”? It enjoyed a certain vogue this year around the time I Love You, Man was released, but the movie and the word were popular because they nailed down a phenomenon for which we didn’t really have an up-to-date English vocabulary before. Am I the only one who thinks it would be helpful if we did have a nuanced vocabulary for talking about non-erotic same-sex friendships? “Bromances” are a genuine variety of human emotional experience! Not having a word for them a bit like not having a word for “purple”! Why are the Banishers being dinks about this?