Banished but not Vanished

Just a quick post today to get caught up…

Every January the Public Relations Office at Lake Superior State University (Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan) releases its List of Banished Words, a not-so-serious exercise now in its 42nd year. How time flies when you’re hip-deep in snark!

I love and hate the Banished Words List, in the same way that I feel both emotions for Word of the Year rankings. They’re irritating exercises in self-indulgence, but they’re also wonderful snapshots of the psyche of a certain portion of humanity. That annual insight, regardless of how cluttered it might be by other factors, is valuable. While LSSU at times might not seem to take their own list seriously, there are always nuggets worth noticing in there.

This year’s list is no exception.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about this list of “banished” words (and you can no sooner banish a word than you can banish a color or a time of day) is that it’s not a scientific process. It’s open to nominations from anyone, which are then reviewed and narrowed down by a committee. It might not be arbitrary, but it’s dominated by popularity (or unpopularity) and pet peeves. Which is perfectly fine, as long as you know that going in. So let’s go in.

This year’s final list had 19 words and phrases on it. Covering just a few gives a good sense of things. If you want to review the entire list, you’ll find it here.

Do I feel any of these words should really be banned or banished? Not really. I have long been of the opinion that bad words — by which I mean words that aren’t useful enough or are unnecessarily awkward or artificial — usually die out pretty quickly without help. “Dadbod” (on this year’s list) is a perfect example. That one’s been around for years, but people rarely use it. And when they do, their discomfort is almost palpable. It’s like no one wants to be caught letting anyone else hear them say it. So this one doesn’t need banishment, it’s doing a good enough job destroying itself.

You, Sir?” Does this phrase get used enough that it would irritate anyone? Well…I guess if a phrase irritates someone, then even one use is too many. Enough people found this worthy of banishment. The data show that it’s actually true that this phrase has seen a noticeable uptick in use over the past couple of decades (perhaps as much as a four-fold increase). The phrase is almost always used in a comic sense…or an attempt to be comic which fails. It’s probably going to stick around in exactly that niche.

Bête noire” being on this list cracks me up. I mean that. Every time I see it there, I stifle a laugh. What is a bête noire? The American Heritage Dictionary goes with “one that is particularly disliked or that is to be avoided,” while the OED expands the definition to include “an insufferable person or thing; an object of aversion.” OED also notes the French origin, in which bête noire is literally black beast. The irony is delicious that something like this made a list that depends on pet peeves — excuse me “bête noires” — for its existence.

The words that are always of most interest to me on this list are the ones that are WOTY selections or also-rans in the same year. This year that includes bigly, ghost, and post-truth. They’re all good (or at least useful) words in the right context. And they were all on the radar of enough people who follow language to make it into the running for Word of the Year. But enough people also thought these same words should go away…simply stop being used, by anyone, anywhere, forever. That, to me, is always the most interesting thing about these opposite lists (WOTY and banished): the dichotomy that they show in the way people think about the words in their own language.

Which one — WOTY or banished — is the correct read of the larger trends both in language use and how people feel about language use? Could it be that both are correct, or neither? There are few simple answers to these questions. That’s what I find most interesting about these exercises, and that’s why I keep paying attention both to how people use words and what they say about the words they use.


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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