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Tuesday Hatred of Word Nerds

Jen Doll and Sarah Miller have been having a cute word nerd back and forth about “the worst word on the planet” and I know it’s in fun but it makes me want to claw my eyeballs out, then chew them up, then spit out one of them and swallow the other one so I can throw it up in my mouth a little. Miller hates literally. Doll hates actually. I hate the discussion. Welcome back to Tuesday Hatred.

In fact, Tuesday Hatred has been here before, with respect to “literally.” Literally is a specific kind of intensifier–I like this explanation, from the OED via Language Log, “that some conventional metaphorical or hyperbolical phrase is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense.” For the current anti-”literally” campaign I blame David Cross, who worried that when you said you laughed so hard you literally shit your pants, that you then had to dispose of said pants. “You should stop using the word forever until you fucking figure it out,” says Cross. This was a funny routine! But it’s completely fucking wrong.

Like most language-nerdery, it’s not just factually wrong, but it’s riddled with status anxiety. The fact that it makes such a good standup routine is a clue here. Comedians are bubbling tubs of status anxiety, verbal dexterity, and little else, so of course they’re going to use wrongheaded ideas about language to jockey for superiority. The rest of us are ostensibly in the business of communicating.

But word nerds, gripped by the fear that meritocracy is a sham, tattoo STRUNK and WHITE on their knuckles and pummel everyone around them who’s just trying to make it to the end of a thought. Obsessed with efficiency, they deride their mots noirs as “wastes of space”. They see their cause as embattled as Ayn Rand saw her capitalists, and they look at language as Howard Roark looked at building plans, to be stripped of all fripperies, all bells and whistles melted down into One Ring To Usage-Rule Them All. (Mixing references but they hang together well, you know?)

What is their hurry? Why shouldn’t a sentence adorn itself with clues to the speaker’s feelings, their intentions? (Yes, I just used gender-neutral singular they. Bring it.) Making the case against actually, Doll presents an impressive defense of it:

Actually is the word that you use when you’re actually saying, “You are wrong, and I am right, and you are at least a little bit of an idiot.”

Consider her example. Who, when bringing a friend a gin and tonic, would rather hear “You are wrong, and I am right, and you are at least a little bit of an idiot, I asked for a vodka soda,” rather than “Actually, I asked for a vodka soda.” (Presumably starting off with “Thank you, but” would be a literally unspeakable horror.)

Today’s update presents A Dictionary of Despicable Words. A good many fall into the category of “word aversion,” where people recoil from the texture of damp or moist or panties. As far as I can tell word aversion is mostly a subsidiary of gynophobia. To the extent that it’s not, let it ride — language should have textures, even discomfiting ones. But most of the despicable words imply a demand that language be efficient, single-minded, brooking no hesitation nor internal dispute.

Take the first one:

arguably. “What, actually, does arguably mean? Indisputable? Able to be argued about? It is a non-word. Another filler, actually.”

I can answer this. If I choose to “fill” a sentence with arguably, it is an invitation to you to continue our discourse. To argue the point. It is an indicator of my state of mind: not made up, looking either–both!–for support or contention. If I eliminate it, I proceed behind a false confidence. Word nerds, is this your ideal? Should we only set down words that are firm enough for us to stand atop them and shout?

The parade of arbitrary rules is long and weird. Never sign an email best because “you would never say best in person,” as if all words that couldn’t do double-duty in speech and writing were ballast to be thrown over the side of our magical linguistic hot-air balloon as we try to escape the muttering troglodytes who want to talk to us in small words.

Some make sense; “thusly” strikes me as a good candidate to keep an eye on, mostly because it smacks of the same status anxiety that infuses the whole project. (“Simplify your language” is a good rule for speakers and writers; “if you’re successfully communicating, chill the fuck out” is its equal and opposite guide for listeners and readers.)

Artisanal, curate, hipster, foodie are all easily understood as hipster self-hatred, in the sense that the only people who talk about those tendencies are people who are uncomfortable with seeing their own reflections in them.

Like and um are brought in for drubbings, as is awesome; these are words that can overtake a sentence or dilute a compliment. But they are also how very many of us talk, especially those of us who are not perfectly comfortable speaking. Those of us who are not exactly sure what we have to say, or whether we are entitled–empowered–to say it, say many of these words. And to those who feel that way, I would rather hear your thoughts, with all of your words, than silence you until you can get by using only those off the approved list.

I am a certain kind of word nerd. I know, and enjoy knowing, many of the rules. (Leigh once described me as “the priest that people actually talk to.”)  I understand that “begs the question” is a logical fallacy, although I think it’s a poorly named one. Fussiness can avoid confusion; I would very much like it if we could agree that “nonplussed” does not mean “unfazed.” I think that deceptively is a marvelous puzzle of a word (my rule is to use it only if it does not reverse the meaning of the sentence; do not dive into a deceptively shallow pool). I enjoy knowing that kudos is actually a singular form in the original Greek, though it sounds like a plural in English, and sometimes I overestimate the degree to which you would like to know that too.

Words are fun things. People use them to try and mean things. Sometimes I think I can help people say those things better. But when they don’t ask for help, most of the time I’m better off just listening to what they have to say.

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August 7, 2012 - Posted by | language, syntax, Tuesday Hatred | , ,

23 Comments

  1. This from the man who tried to ban “limn.” But yeah, great points. I think some of the anxiety comes from the feeling that diminished vocabulary can become a crutch i.e. I am not expressing my true meaning. I’m expressing the most meaning I can convey through the shorthand I’ve come to accept as language.

    Comment by Leigh Bardugo | August 7, 2012

  2. Re limn: 1. see “thusly,” above. 2. mostly, though, see “tribute vice pays to virtue” 3. you may have detected in my Victory Garden reading a reference to “Loon Lake, its beaches limned with leeches.”

    Comment by Josh K-sky | August 7, 2012

  3. When life gives you limn, make limnade.

    Comment by Mike Markowitz | August 7, 2012

  4. [...] endorse k-sky’s Tuesday Hatred of Word Nerds. Posted on Tuesday, August 7, 2012 under Biscuits | RSS Click here to cancel [...]

    Pingback by K-sky gets it right « The Great Whatsit | August 7, 2012

  5. Literally-bashing used to be good sport, but sure, yeah, nowadays it looks rather joyless. These things are generally fine until people get really snooty and humorless about them. I wonder if appealing to the OED is a little peculiar, though, when your basic stance is anti-prescriptivist, though I suppose you’re saying “even on their own terms…”

    I like lots of this and protest a very little of it. Your argument about “best” I am enthusiastically in accord with. “Curate” does make me itch and I’m nobody’s hipster. Your last paragraph is exactly the point.

    I mean…what else it means when people point out an iffy “literally” is “I wish to establish that you and I are the same kind, at the expense of someone who isn’t here and won’t know.” So it could be worse. Actually.

    Comment by Smearcase | August 7, 2012

  6. If I had time, then I would pen a solemn autumn hymn to “limn.” I’d write the lyrics just for fun, and publish it in n+1.

    Comment by poc2666 | August 7, 2012

  7. Literally scintillating article *thumbsup*

    Comment by Ris | August 8, 2012

  8. I have a sliver of regret for the title, which would have been better as “word snobs” than “word nerds.” Blame the Weblog headline editor!

    Comment by Josh K-sky | August 8, 2012

  9. I agree wholeheartedly. I’d like to arrange a public burning of copies of Strunk and White. All this word snob stuff is just made-up, ad hoc pedantry.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | August 8, 2012

  10. Seeing others’ word snobbery on Facebook has cured me of my own. I still secretly wish I could get people to stop using “fast” as an adjective.

    I hate that I didn’t notice Tuesday Hatred’s triumphant return yesterday.

    Comment by mattintoledo | August 8, 2012

  11. Can’t promise more in the way of Tuesday Hatred. It was a lucky get that I was consumed with bile on a Tuesday. Haters, apply within.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | August 8, 2012

  12. [...] nerds, is this your ideal? Should we only set down words that are firm enough for us to stand atop them and shout?” [...]

    Pingback by TIM FERNHOLZ | August 8, 2012

  13. From the article:
    “hunk. “to refer to a piece of food,” presumably because the word hunk is rather unappealing.”

    I would say that “rather” as a useless submodifier is one of my peeves, but it’s not going anywhere so I get along with it.

    Comment by dm | August 8, 2012

  14. I agree that it’s pointless and snobbish to argue all this as if it were really about being right rather than being aesthetically pleasing. But I know you recoil against ugly writing just as much as I do. Well, maybe not as much, but you do.

    Comment by Josh Malbin | August 8, 2012

  15. See? That should have been “recoil from,” but these comments lack an edit function.

    Comment by Josh Malbin | August 8, 2012

  16. Sure. In fact, there are all sorts of passages in my post that I wish were tighter or better punctuated, and even one or two that I wish didn’t have the words in the Despised Dictionary. I would love to see aesthetics argued instead of conformity to rules. But to speak of beauty would also admit subjectivity, and heads would explode.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | August 8, 2012

  17. When given limns, made a whiskey sour!

    Comment by Hunter | August 8, 2012

  18. I just noticed I said I wished I could get people to stop using “fast” as an adjective. I meant as an adverb. Apparently, even when I was a word snob I wasn’t very good at it.

    Comment by Mattintoledo | August 9, 2012

  19. Muphry’s law strikes again.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | August 9, 2012

  20. I have always been a huge fan of people who incorrectly say touché. It gives me a warm feeling deep down in my cockles.

    Comment by Adam | August 9, 2012

  21. [...] Meanwhile, Home for the heteronomous has a lovely bit about a post on The Awl that bemoans the use of “literally” and eventually “actually” and a few others that clutter the mother tongue despite the efforts of battalions of word nerd gardeners constantly weeding them out. I could tell them a few things about weeds and weeding and how pointless it is to pull up that sow thistle, no matter how annoying, but whatever. Tuesday Hatred’s author points out just how difficult it is to police the spoken word (or healthy garden) in this way: Like and um are brought in for drubbings, as is awesome; these are words that can overtake a sentence or dilute a compliment. But they are also how very many of us talk, especially those of us who are not perfectly comfortable speaking. Those of us who are not exactly sure what we have to say, or whether we are entitled–empowered–to say it, say many of these words. And to those who feel that way, I would rather hear your thoughts, with all of your words, than silence you until you can get by using only those off the approved list. [...]

    Pingback by Tuesday hatred « Amy Pollien | August 9, 2012

  22. [...] Word, Ctd Posted at 11:15 on August 10, 2012 by Andrew Sullivan by Gwynn Guilford Josh Kamensky derides the anti-literally/actually crusaders, which the Dish spotlighted yesterday: Consider Doll's [...]

    Pingback by Literally, The Worst Word, Ctd | The Penn Ave Post | August 10, 2012

  23. “Virtual” was my Dad’s favorite shlock word, actually. And thank you.

    Comment by SKUTZ (aka the idiot pedant) | August 10, 2012


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