Banished: Words in Exile, 2015 Edition

Once or twice I’ve followed up on the WOTY (Word of the Year) roundup posts with a post describing words people would like to see expunged from the English language forever. As with WOTY lists, these banned lists often tell you a lot more about the people who put them together than the words themselves.

The best (and longest-lived) such “banned words” list is the one put together each year by Lake Superior State University. I didn’t bother covering it last year, partly because I was busy with other things, but partly because it was just too damned cranky and technophobic. Crankiness is always a factor with this type of list, but there’s a fine line between thoughtful negativity and mere bitter griping. So I skipped it. This year, the submitters are back in thoughtful form, so I’m back with a summary.

Top on LSSU’s “hater” list this year is bae. Which is easy to understand. While popular in certain circles, this word was definitely unloved by many in 2014.

The rest of their list, as happens in most years, is all over the map. There’s hatred for media overuse (polar vortex) and pop-culture fixation (foodie); there’s the predictable put-down of urban slang (cra-cra) and negative reaction to short-lived techno-jargon (friend-raising). There’s even a nod to the political, with “enhanced interrogation” (but I have to ask: where has this voter been sequestered for the past decade and a half?).

Most interesting to me on this list are the commonly used words and the rationales given for banishing them. The rants against “hack” are understandable, but banishing it would be next to impossible, considering how entrenched it is. In any case, wanting to deprive us of this useful word because some people use it badly or sloppily, isn’t really justified. Banning hack because someone uses “life hack” makes about as much sense as banning “burger” because you don’t like veggie burgers.

I feel about the same for swag, skill set, and take-away: they’re perfectly good (if frequently badly used) words. But they’re not going anywhere. The complaints about these words are justified (albeit cranky), especially for the increasingly nebulous swag, but we’d all best just settle in and get used to them.

Only a select (ahem) “curated” set of voter comments are shown on the LSSU site, and some of them are quite amusing. I give the “Best Voter Comment” award to this exercise in speaking truth to commercial power:

Instead of abusing curated, why don’t they say what they really mean: ‘We did an online search and posted the first 25 items we found’ or the ‘curated selection of items in your box this month are a mix of paid placements and products that have failed to sell elsewhere.’ – Samantha McCormick, Kirkland, Wash.

The truth can hurt. See LSSU’s full list here.

The cumulative record of all LSSU’s banished words since the list’s inception in 1976 is worth a glance. It’s a large, eclectic collection of many words and phrases that have died on their own — as well as quite a few others that should be put out of their misery. But there are also numerous entries which are certainly worth keeping in our collective vocabulary. Losing (or banning) some of these would be unlikely to harm the language. But their existence is a very clear display of both how alive and how functionally rich our language really is.

Better than LSSU’s list this year, largely for being more pithy, is a list by public radio commentator Jeri Quinzio. Her explanations are also more measured and less curmudgeonly than LSSU’s (you can’t say the same for the comments in response — everybody’s got an axe to grind). She suggested blacklisting these seven words:

  • curate
  • amazing
  • icon/iconic
  • entrepreneurial
  • artisan/artisanal
  • branding
  • foodie

I feel your pain on these, Jeri — as, obviously, do many of the folks who submitted words to LSSU’s list, since there’s overlap.

Since we’re grinding axes, I’ve got two personal candidates for banning: one word and one phrase. The word is “cromnibus.” Describing something just as ugly as it sounds, this (thankfully) short-lived amalgamation of CR (from “continuing resolution“) and “omnibus” was slapped on one of the hoped-for outcomes of the most recent breath-holding exercise by the Republican-led US Congress. While digging in their heels and refusing to pass an omnibus budget bill (which would have, as the name suggests, included everything), they also were reluctant to approve a continuing resolution, which would have simply authorized spending at previous levels.

I can’t even remember the outcome of this particular fight. All these exercises in ideological grandstanding blur together. The government is still functioning, so something must have passed. But the Republicans are still angry, so there must have been a compromise. I don’t think the cromnibus became law, in any case.

The phrase I’d like to see banned (or at least used much less frequently, and sharpened up when it is used) is “comfort food.” This one has irritated me for several years. When the phrase first got wide circulation (the mid ’80s?) it meant something: comfort food was a special category of foods, usually simple and homey stuff like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or macaroni and cheese, that reminded the eater of childhood and simple comforts. It was mom and apple pie stuff: chicken noodle soup eaten from a coffee mug on a winter’s day, or grilled cheese in grandma’s kitchen.

Usage deteriorated slowly at first, but then accelerated. These days, comfort food is most commonly used to describe any food that you like to eat. The nostalgic tone has been lost, replaced by the simple act of consumption: if eating something makes you feel good, then it’s comfort food. It’s lobster mac and cheese or ground sirloin and andouille shepherd’s pie; it’s a blend of imported cheddar and gouda on hand kneaded focaccia, melted in a panini press, washed down with craft beer. Those might be great meals, but they’re very far from what comfort food was meant to describe. This word pair has become so watered down that it carries practically no useful meaning, and can be compressed to just “food” much of the time.

That’s more than enough crankiness from me, and probably more than you needed to know. We’ve all got words that make us cringe — if you can’t think of any of your own, you probably wouldn’t have bothered to read this. If you feel strongly about them, post a comment. Better yet, send them to LSSU for consideration on their next list. I might just mention your choice next year.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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