NEW: CNN commenters suggest epic, chillax and interwebs
School takes aim at a dozen overused, misused, useless words and phrases
Lighthearted list includes fiscal cliff, job creator, yolo, trending, bucket list
Words offer clues to how society is changing, says linguist
Dear 2012, now that you’re gone, please take these lame words with you: trending, spoiler alert, bucket list, superfood, guru and job creators. Oh yeah, and don’t forget yolo.
That’s the message from scholars at Lake Superior State University.
For the 38th straight year, the tiny state college tucked away in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula unveiled on Monday its list of useless, overused or misused terms: 12 words or phrases the school wants “banished” from the English language in 2013.
“I’m in the word banishment business,” admits university PR director Tom Pink, who helped whittle down the list from thousands of nominations submitted to the school’s website. “There’s a slightly serious side to this, but mostly we’re trying to have fun with it.”
Sure it’s fun. But it also makes you wonder why some new words stick and others don’t.
English warmly welcomes some new words into its family for generations. But other words are treated like one-night stands. We love ‘em and leave ‘em.
Here’s the list:
1. Yolo, an acronym for the phrase “you only live once”
Now it looks like yolo’s in trouble. Twitter hashtag #In2013NoMore includes Tweeters swearing off yolo forever. Yolo is annoying because it encourages “wannabe Twitter philosophers who think they’ve uncovered a deep secret of life,” wrote Brendan Cotter of Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan, who nominated the word for the list.
Sadly, poor little yolo’s story is all too common, says Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley School of Information.
“These words that are often very effective and attractive have very short half-lives because everybody picks them up at once, and they lose their punch,” says Nunberg, who calls this phenomenon the “nine-day wonder.” “If the words even last nine days at all.”
The list takes shots at serious words, too:
2. Fiscal cliff, a media term to describe expiring federal tax cuts and across-the-board government spending cuts which are set to become effective 12/31/2012
“Just once, I would like to hear it referred to as a financial crisis,” wrote a nominator from Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Appropriately, her name is Barbara Cliff.
“Journalists always like cliffs,” Nunberg jokes. “There’s more pressure to use phrases like that, because if you soft peddle things, nobody’s going to read the story.”
Two other politically tinged phrases made the list.
3. Kick the can down the road, a metaphorical phrase that describes the concept of substituting a short-term fix in place of a final decision
4. Job creator/creators, a person or business directly responsible for adding employed workers to the economy
Words like “job creators,” Nunberg says, represent an entire set of phrases that bubbled up during the 2012 presidential campaign. These words reflect recent changes in the way Americans talk about differing economic and social classes. “It’s the ’47%,’ the ‘moochers,’ the ‘makers and takers.’” These kinds of words, Nunberg suggests, fuel the fire of class warfare in American life.
The list is peppered with words embraced by corporate culture, Nunberg says.
5. Passion/passionate, an intense devotion to an idea, thing or endeavor
The popularity of this word results from the “bloating of the language of corporate life,” Nunberg says. “People are expected to manifest a kind of emotional attachment and investment in their jobs that wasn’t required back when jobs were a lot more secure.”
6. Superfood, a nonscientific word for food with extremely high nutritional benefits
It’s a term which Nunberg says shows how influential the explosion of marketing has become in our culture.
Another food word on the list:
7. Boneless wings, small hand-held pieces of processed chicken without bones which are often enjoyed in sports bars
“Can we just call them chicken (pieces)?” pleaded John McNamara, of Lansing, Michigan, who nominated the word.
8. Trending, currently popular
“There are lots of ways to say it, but none in as few as eight letters,” jokes Nunberg. “It’s a little trendy.”
Here’s one that Pink says has lost its meaning:
9. Bucket list, a personal list of experiences people desire before they die, also known as “kicking the bucket”
This one has got to go, says Pink. There was a time when it could mean something like climbing a mountain, he explains. Now a bucket list can include less-lofty pursuits – like catching a two-for-one sale at the mall.
Rounding out the rest of the dozen: spoiler alert, guru and double down.
Words and phrases that almost made the list – but failed: “wheelhouse,” “skill set.”
Also, Pink singled out an annoying phrase that fell under particular consideration.
That phrase was, “I know, right.”
Says Pink, “That one came close.”
What do you think? Here are some suggestions from CNN commenters:
“Banish ‘Mother Nature’ from weather references FOREVER!” writes snowdogg.
“I would like to request that the words ‘epic’, ‘chillax’, and ‘splitsville’ also be removed from the world’s vernacular,” suggests Daniel.
Also this gem, from gemurray: “The author uses one of the words that drives me crazy in the last couple of paragraphs - ‘Interwebs’ has got to go too! It’s either ‘Internet’ or ‘World Wide Web’, there is no such thing as ‘“interwebs!’”
F-word and A-word
The F-word and the A-word are often nominated for the list, but Pink says offensive words aren’t considered. “We try to keep it lighthearted.”
Nunberg’s book, “Ascent of the A-Word,” follows a**hole from its invention by WWII GIs to today, where the word has become a “basic term that a lot of us use all the time in our emotional and moral lives, for example when somebody cuts us off on the highway.”
In fact, Nunberg says words from the 1940s – like the A-word – are more likely to survive than words invented in the ’90s. “You’d think more of the older words would be obsolete now, but no.”
More words are being invented now than ever before – partly because of easy and fast communication on the interwebs. (Sorry, gemurray) “But the more words that are produced increases the competition,” says Nunberg. There’s a kind of process of natural selection.
The words that survive often “become signs of important social movements or changes,” he says.
The loser words will die – never to be spoken again by countless mouths of future generations.
Hey little yolo, if you’re reading this, you better find some new friends. And fast. If you know what’s good for ya.