Proper Words in Proper Places

Meditations on the English language

Words of the Year

On banning words from the language

After a hiatus -- first the holiday season hit, then beginning-of-semester meshugas, and then a minor health emergency sent me to the hospital -- I’m able to return my attention to the blog. I had hoped to be able to write a little closer to the new year, when the material in it would still be fresh, but, well, you can’t always get what you &c.

The arrival new year always brings with it a glance back at the old, and for language buffs, that usually takes the form of words of the year. The most influential declaration comes from the American Dialect Society, and their decisions always attract media attention. One of the best summaries comes from Ben Zimmer, who in this article notes that the ADS declared tweet the word of the year 2009, and the verb to google the word of the decade. (They also identified winners in a few other categories: fail as “most useful,” death panel as “most outrageous,” and Dracula sneeze -- “covering one's mouth with the crook of one's elbow when sneezing, seen as similar to popular portrayals of the vampire Dracula, in which he hides the lower half of his face with a cape” -- as “most creative.”)

Things like that are often fun, and usually harmless. More troublesome, though, is another annual list, one that comes from Lake Superior State University: their “List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness.” Here’s how it’s described:

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"Former LSSU Public Relations Director Bill Rabe and friends created 'word banishment' in 1975 at a New Year's Eve party and released the first list on New Year's Day. Since then, LSSU has received tens of thousands of nominations for the list, which includes words and phrases from marketing, media, education, technology and more.

Each year they settle on a list of words that they’d like to see expunged permanently from the language.

I should say I’m not always opposed to such things. Some of their pet peeves are agreeable enough, and some are funny even when they’re misguided. Like the LSSU gang, I find teachable moment a tiresome cliché, and I’ll be glad when the media grow weary of it.

Too many of the arguments, though, are of the you-know-what-I-hate? variety, with the assumption that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the words or phrases themselves, not simply their overuse. One contributor complains about the word app, whose popularity has shot up thanks to the iPhone, saying “Must we b sbjct to yt another abrv?” But what’s wrong with abbreviations? As I write in The Lexicographer’s Dilemma,

"Perhaps there are still a few diehards who take the omnibus and suffer from influenza; the rest of us take the bus and catch the flu. These purists are probably the same people who have never opened a fridge, entered a lab, worked out in a gym, taken an exam, filled a tank with gas, played a piano or a cello, worn a bra, seen a movie or a sitcom, taken a plane, dialed a phone, written a memo, or visited a zoo—all abbreviated forms of longer words."

Many of the complaints are also the result of what Arnold Zwicky calls the “recency illusion,” defined as “the (often inaccurate) belief that a usage you have recently noticed is in fact a recent development in the language.” One word held up for particular ignominy in the Lake Superior survey, for instance, was friend as a verb, now all the rage thanks to Facebook. Many people grit their teeth at things like she friended him, convinced that it’s a violation of some unchanging law of the English language. But friend was a verb six centuries ago: the Oxford English Dictionary lists friend as a verb beginning in 1387, and defines it as “To make (persons) friends or friendly; to join in friendship; to join (a person) to or with another in friendship. Chiefly in pass. to be friended.” Shakespeare’s contemporary, the Earl of Leicester, for instance, used it in 1585: “Yf the man be as he now semeth, hit were petty to loose him, for he is in dede mervelously frended.” The word eventually fell out of use in the seventeenth century.

And now it’s back. So what? The usual argument against new words is that they pose a risk of confusion, but is there anything ambiguous about the verb friend?

The problem with calls to expunge offensive things from the language is that they go beyond matters of simple taste. You’re allowed to dislike anything about the language, and free to use or not use any word, phrase, or construction that tickles your fancy. I, for one, can’t imagine myself using friend in conversation. But too often these personal preferences get turned into crusades, and they’re usually expressed in terms of “protecting” or “guarding” the language, keeping it safe from intruders. But “banning” words from the language isn’t doing anyone a favor; it’s merely pretending that prejudices are principles.

The one lesson I wish people would learn: don’t fret about the health of the English language. It’s been doing just fine for fifteen hundred years, and it’s going to outlive all of us. There will be some things we like and some things we don’t, but what’s so surprising about that? Speak and writely clearly and forcefully, work on clarity and grace, and the rest will take care of itself.

Jack Lynch teaches English at Rutgers University and is the author of The Lexicographer's Dilemma.

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