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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