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Refudiating [sic] LSSU's List
of "Banished" words

Rand Green 
Yosemite Valley


I REALIZE there are many much more serious and consequential concerns to be dealt with than the trivial topic of this piece. But, hey, it's New Year's Day, and I'm in a mood to start the new year off with something on the lighter side. We'll be into the heavy stuff here on Perspicacity Press soon enough.

Yesterday, December 31, 2010, Lake Superior State University in the beautiful, if somewhat nippy, community of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, published its "36th annual List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-use [sic], Over-use [sic] and General Uselessness."

No scholarship goes into making the list, mind you. It is formed from nominations from anybody who, for whatever reason, doesn't like a certain word or expression. We are informed that "LSSU receives well over 1,000 nominations annually through its website," Oooh, I am so impressed!

Among the entries topping this year's list are: viral, epic, fail, a-ha moment, back story, man up, refudiate, mama grizzlies, the American people, I'm just sayin', Google (as a verb), and live life to the fullest.

I presume none of that is intended to be taken too seriously, so it is in the spirit of good clean fun that I undertake to refudiate the list and counter a few of the corny, confused, contrived, or catty comments made by some of those who nominated the entries.

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A couple of preliminary observations: First, it's amusing that an academic institution in Michigan, U.S. of A., even one with Superior in its name, would presume to banish words from the Queen's English. Shouldn't that be left to Queen's College Oxford? With rare exceptions, Queen's English isn't even spoken on this side of the pond. Second, if one is determined to declare certain misused and overused words from the language, one would do well to spell "misused" and "overused" correctly. It would enhance one's credibility. 

Now, on to the list.

Viral was the most complained-about word. Here are some of the comments:

Jim Cance of Plainwell, Michigan, wrote that it is "Often used to describe the spreading of items on the Internet i.e. 'The video went viral.' It is overused

Lawrence Mickel of Coventry, Connecticut wrote, "Events, photographs, written pieces and even occasional videos that attracted a great deal of attention once were simply highly publicized, repeated in news broadcasts, and talked about for a few days. Now, however, it is no longer enough to give such offerings their 15 minutes of fame, but they must be declared to 'go viral.' As a result, any mindless stunt or vapid bit of writing is sent by its creators whirling around the Internet and, once whirled, its creators declare it (trumpets here) 'viral!'"

"I didn't mind much when 'viral' came to mean an under-handed tactic by advertising companies to make their ads look like pop culture. However, now anything that becomes popular on YouTube is suddenly 'viral.' I just don't get it," wrote Kevin Wood of Wallacetown, Ontario.

"Every time I see a viral video on CNN or am asked to 'Let's go viral with this' in another lame e-mail forwarded message, it makes me sick." wrote Lian Schmidt of Bandon, Oregon.

The expression "to go viral" is a metaphor that has reference not to just anything that is spread via the internet but, specifically, to a phenomenon in which that spreading becomes is self-sustaining, without a need for constant prodding from its originator. It occurs when a sufficient number of individuals deem a particular item of sufficient interest however vapid or uninteresting you or I may deem it to be that they pass it on to others, and then a sufficient number of those recipients pass it on to keep it spreading. True the expression is overused and misused, often by wishful thinkers, but properly used it is highly useful to describe one of the more dramatic phenomena of the internet age. Never in history has it been possible for information (or misinformation or a video clip or a witticism) to be promulgated so rapidly to so many people.

Kevin, like it or not, advertising has been influencing pop culture for as long as advertising has existed, but only when enough people like the advertising message to make it popular. There's nothing underhanded about that. (Notice, no hyphen needed in the word "underhanded.") The solution is to not get mindlessly sucked in either by advertising or by pop culture.

Lian, I get a lot of those lame emails, and they makes me sick, too. But occasionally I receive an email that is less than lame and deserves to go viral. A point of grammar: It should be either " asked to 'go viral with this'" or " asked: 'Let's go viral with this." People don't ask us to let's go. I'm just sayin'. :-)

Epic. "Standards for using 'epic' are so low, even 'awesome' is embarrassed," wrote Mike of Kettering, Ohio. Cleverly put, Mike, and no argument here from me.

"Over-use of the word 'epic' has reached epic proportions," wrote Tim Blaney of Snoqualmie, Washington. Good show, Tim. Exaggeration by example. I'm almost surprised you didn't say it has reached "biblical" proportions. Urban Dictionary says "epic" is old and tired, and "biblical" is the new replacement. But that may be a bit "extreme," maybe even "cosmic." Perhaps "leviathan" would be more apropos.

Fail, as a noun (in place of failure) or as an adjective (in place of failed) is "Mis-used. Over-used. Used with complete disregard to the 'epic' weight of the word," wrote Natalie of Burlington, Ontario. (Again, why the hyphens, Nat-alie?) In the imperative voice, she added:  "Silence obnoxious reality TV personalities and sullen, anti-establishment teenagers everywhere by banishing this word." I'm inclined to agree, Natalie, except with your reference to the "'epic' weight of the word." Notwithstanding the prevalence of the expression "epic fail," I question that many things branded a "fail" are really of epic weight, or even of cosmic significance. In fact, failure often leads to an epiphany -- or, as some might say, an A-ha moment. Which brings us to

A-ha moment. "All this means is a point at which you understand something or something becomes clearer. Why can't you just say that?" wrote Audrey Mayo of Killeen, Texas. Hi, Audrey. I've been to Killeen many times. In fact, I once had an a-ha moment in Killeen. Oh, I'm sorry, let me rephrase that. I once had a point, while in Killeen, at which I understood something or something became clearer. Yes, that's much more concise and to the point. I like the economy of words.

Back story, wrote Jeff Williams of Sherwood, Arizona, "should be on the list of words that don't need to exist because a perfectly good word has been used for years. In this case, the word is 'history." Nice try, Jeff, but they don't mean the same thing. The one is not a substitute for the other. "History" is a very broad term. "Back story" has a specific meaning and specific application in literary and dramatic arts. It is often not historical at all but purely fictional and may exist only in the mind of the creator of a fictional character or event. The term may be overused or misused, as many good words are, but "back story" is a useful term that should not be banished.

BFF made the list of words that ought to be banished. I'm not sure it qualifies as a word, or even an acronym (I struggle to pronounce it), but I'm down with that. Kate Rabe Forgach of Ft. Collins, Colorado, wrote: "These chicks call each other BFF (Best Friends Forever) and it lasts about 10 minutes. Now there's BFFA (Best Friends For Awhile), which makes more sense." Reminds me of a short story I read long ago in which a character wrote a letter to his sweetheart and signed off, "Yours till you hear otherwise." BTY, FYI, there are a lot of these alphabet soup abbreves I'd love to see disappear.

Man up, wrote Sherry Edwards of Clarkston, Michigan, is "a stupid phrase when directed at men. Even more stupid when directed at a woman, as in 'Alexis, you need to man up and join that Pilates class!'". I concur. But when Aunt Shecky (What a coincidence! My mother's sister's first name is also Aunt) of East Greenbush, New York, calls the expression "another case of 'verbing' a noun and ending with a preposition that goes nowhere," I take exception to her reasoning. The English language, as with its Germanic underpinnings, is replete with nouns converted to verbs, often by the addition of a preposition which then becomes an inseparable part of the verb. Some work, some don't. "Saddle up" makes sense. "Pony up," less so.

Refudiate. "Adding this word to the English language simply because a part-time politician lacks a spell checker on her cell phone is an action that needs to be repudiated," said Dale Humphreys of Muskegon, Michigan, while Kuahmel Allah of Los Angeles, California wants to "refudiate" what he called "Sarah Palin-isms." Let's get real here: Refudiate has been "added to the English language," as it were, only because Palin bashers enjoy poking fun at her, just as they did with Bush and "subliminable." They don't really want these words to go away. They are the ones perpetuating them. My advice: Let him who is No, let me try that again in politically correct form: Let them who is without sin among you, who has never made a typo and never mispronounced a word, cast the first stone.

Mama Grizzlies. "Unless you are referring to a scientific study of Ursus arctos horribilis, this analogy of right-wing female politicians should rest in peace," wrote Mark Carlson of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Don't you wish, Mark. "Let's hear it for the Mama Grizzlies!" writes the Cantankerous Yank.

The American People. "These politicians in Congress say 'the American People' as part of what seems like every statement they make! I see that others have noticed it, too, as various websites abound, including an entry on Wikipedia," complained Paul M. Girouard of St. Louis, Missouri

Hmm. Maybe some of the Congress critters are beginning to pay attention to us after all. Let's hope it is not just lip service.

Deb Faust of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, thinks the expression "the American people" is redundant, that either "Americans" or "people" should suffice. Yes, Deb, all Americans are people. But not all people are Americans, so the terms are not totally interchangeable. The language of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution would have been weaker had it said, "We of the United States" rather than "We the People of the United States." Furthermore, no matter how hard you may try to banish "The American People," you may rest assured that we are here to stay. The Mama Grizzlies will see to that.

That said, I would like to nominate for oblivion the grammatical misuse of "We the People" in the objective case. In the United States, We the People have a right to be heard, and elected officials must be responsive to us, the People.

I'm just sayin' is "'a phrase used to diffuse any ill feelings caused by a preceded remark,' according to the Urban Dictionary," wrote Becky of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. That's a good definition. If the phrase doesn't work for you, don't use it. If someone else uses it and you choose to take offense anyway, go for it. I'm just sayin'.

Google as a verb "causes some deep problems," generalized Jordan of Waterloo, Ontario. Yeah, like what? He fails to explain.

The verb "to Google" is extremely useful and highly specific. Why should I sacrifice economy of words by saying "I did a search on the search engine " when "I Googled " is universally understood. I can't see any problems with it, except, perhaps, for someone who works for a rival search engine such as Yahoo!

Live Life to the Fullest, according to Sylvia Hall of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, is "an absurdity followed by a redundancy. First, things are full or they're not; there is no fullest. Second, 'live life' is redundant. Finally, the expression is nauseatingly overused. What's wrong with enjoying life fully or completely? The phrase makes me gag."

Actually, Sylvia, one can live a life as surely as one can sing a song, think a thought or die a slow and agonizing death. Yes, they're all redundant, sort of like committing suicide in Buffalo, as the character in "A Chorus Line" put it. Don't know if that's deemed to be true in Williamsport, or in Soo, the home of LSSU. But poets and philosophers for centuries have observed that merely to be alive is not the same as to truly live, and the world's literature would be poorer indeed if that distinction were banished from the language. To wit:

Plato: "The unexamined life is not worth living." Benjamin Disraeli: "The great majority of men exist but do not live." Peter Marshall: "It is not the length of life that matters, but how it is lived." Sir Walter Scott: "One hour of life, crowded to the full with glorious action, and filled with noble risks, is worth whole year of those mean observances of paltry decorum in which men seal through existence, like sluggish waters through a marsh, without either honor or observation."

And as for your assertion, Sylvia, that "things are full or they're not; there is no fullest," you may be miss-quoting Yoda. ("Do or do not. There is no try.") But your black-or-white logic is invalid. There are degrees of fullness. Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, which remains an authoritative standard for American English, gives as one definition for "full" as a noun, "the the highest or fullest state or degree." (Emphasis added.)

If the phrase "Live life to the fullest" makes you gag, Sylvia, perhaps it is because you have not yet truly lived.

Perspicaciously Yours,
Rand Green

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