Happy New Year, Let's-Feel-Superior State - Macleans.ca

Happy New Year, Let’s-Feel-Superior State

Colby Cosh vs. the word gurus and their banished words


Another year, another “Banished Words List” from the comedians at Lake Superior State University. (See here for my comments on the 2010 version.)

While the U.S. Congress has been kicking the can down the road and inching closer to the fiscal cliff, the word gurus at Lake Superior State University have doubled-down on their passion for the language and have released their 38th annual List of Words to be Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness.

The press release doesn’t say that the list is cooked up by usage experts (and a university is the last place on earth one should look for them), but the whole thing is, as always, cleverly disguised as an English-usage exercise, with the usual correspondence from grouchy 96-year-old newspaper readers.

Fiscal cliff: “Tends to be used however the speaker wishes to use it, as in falling off the fiscal cliff, climbing the fiscal cliff, challenged by the fiscal cliff, etc. Just once, I would like to hear it referred to as a financial crisis.” -Barbara Cliff, Johnstown, PA

Just once, I would like to hear Barbara Cliff referred to as “an idiot.” The “fiscal cliff” was essentially a one-off proper noun for a particular crisis, one that, by the way, was not in any meaningful way “financial.” Congress essentially planned for a bunch of bad things to happen on a particular date if it didn’t arrive at a long-term spending plan for the U.S. government. We could all have decided to call it the Doomsday Device or the Poison Pill or the Fiscal Flood (maybe Johnstown would favour that); the one option that certainly couldn’t have been pursued was everybody calling it something different, because then that’s not language.

Individual historical events always have distinct names chosen for them. There cannot be any usage-based objection to that. In this case a “cliff” was a perfectly good metaphor. We got tired of hearing it, not because the language was inappropriate but because the absurdity of the crisis itself was vexing to Americans, the poor dears. Fine. It doesn’t need to go onto a Banned Words list, because the U.S. is now past the fiscal cliff and the next one will be the Supercliff or the Grand Fiscal Canyon or something.

Double down: “This blackjack term is now used as a verb in place of ‘repeat’ or ‘reaffirm’ or ‘reiterate.’ Yet, it adds nothing. It’s not even colorful. Hit me!” Allan Ryan, Boston, MA

Someone should hit you, Al. What is “colourful” if the language of gambling isn’t? The term “double down” does not actually mean just “repeat” or “reiterate”; it refers specifically to the reaffirmation of a particular position coupled with an increasing of stakes. A person “doubles down” when they respond to the possibility of an embarrassment or a defeat not by retreating in a dignified manner, but by increasing their commitment. Again, it is a perfectly good metaphor that is well understood. Even somebody who has never played cards can figure out what it probably means in a sentence, which is a major advantage for novel or popular verbiage. There is no equally good way to replace “He doubled down on his support for the F-35” with another phrase.

YOLO: “Used by teens everywhere to describe an action that is risky or unconventional, yet acceptable because ‘you only live once.’ Who lives more than once?” P.P., Los Angeles, CA

Hell yes I’m gonna defend it! You only live once!

Dear “P.P.”: forgive me if I’m confusing you here, but everybody knows that everybody knows you only live once. Even teenagers! Turning the time-encrusted maxim “you only live once” into an acronym indicates that you are making an actual guiding philosophy of it, the fact being (as everybody also knows) that people do tend to forget that you only live once and that they do have a tendency to circumscribe their lives according to phobias and imaginary responsibilities and laziness and habit. Saying “YOLO” is the conscious taking of a side in favour of hedonism and varied experience.

It’s probably convenient to young people to have one word for this—to be able to say “My approach to life is pretty YOLO.” Eventually we might start calling it YOLOism or yolosity, as something we naturally possess in greater or lesser increment. After all, you can’t oppose or argue against a yelp of “YOLO” on the grounds that you don’t only live once. “Sorry, I’m a little less yoloite than Jaden. I don’t think I want to drop acid in a hot-air balloon.”

In other words, like the previously banned “bromance”, “YOLO” helps us pinpoint a phenomenon of human personality that we would otherwise have to use technical lingo to specify. “Subject Jaden is keenly aware of mortality and that steady employment and the requirements of family formation will one day limit his life choices. Subject responds by dismissing thoughts of the future and dropping acid in hot-air balloons.” Remember, “word gurus,” teenagers are clever devils; they make up words sometimes because no one previously existing has done the job for them, and they are usually onto something when they do it.

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