I was struggling with what to write about this week. It was my week for writing about writing, but I couldn't think of anything new to say. So, like many people, I wasted some time on Facebook while I tried to think up something to say. A couple unrelated conversations gave me the inspiration I was looking for.
I was participating in a conversation on a skeptical site when someone got frustrated with a particularly unscientific comment and replied with this:
Saying that is just autistic. Are you mentally retarded?
Woah. I had never heard "autistic" used in place of "stupid" or "goofy" that way. I had heard people use the word "retarded" this way before. I've even done it, before it was repeatedly pointed out that it's hurtful to people who are retarded or have family members who are. Now, if I use that word, I use it correctly, to mean an actual impediment to growth, whether physical or mental. I don't use it as a pejorative in my online conversations anymore. But I had never heard anyone use "autistic", an even more specific diagnostic term, in this way. And that got me thinking about words we use too often.
If you're a writer or an avid reader, you're probably a little more sensitive to the value of words, than most. If you're an amateur writer like me, you're always looking at how words communicate, or don't, and how you can improve your own use of them. I love words. They're fun to analyze, talk about, and play with. But there are some words that I'd just assume never use again. They are overused, hateful, annoying, or just not very useful. I'm sure you have your own list of these kinds of pet peeves, words that just get under your skin, annoy you, seem to stab you right in the eye when you read them on a page. So this is a kind of exercise in actually identifying some words I'm going to stop using, or promise myself not to start using. I'm just going to briefly talk about three classes of them, categories I made up for the purpose. If it helps you hone your own list of "don't ever use these" words, I've accomplished the mission. Your list shouldn't be the same as mine, but I'm going to argue like the Dickens for the inclusion of some of my least favorites on your list. You're welcome to share any you've added to yours.
I don't dislike made up words in general, just certain ones. These tend to be either combinations of existing words, or shorthand.
Sheeple falls into the first class of made up words that annoy the heck out of me. Made up of sheep and people, it's supposed to refer to someone who acts like a member of a herd, following along, often following a leader, without thought. Baaa-baa. Cute, right? Except it is dehumanizing and used to dismiss not just the argument, but the person making it. You don't have to argue the facts of the matter if you can just make fun of the one making the argument.
Another form of made up word is created by adding certain words to the end of other words. Nazi is a word often appended by those of us feeling too lazy to be original. When Seinfeld featured the Soup Nazi, it was funny and original. Whoever heard of a purveyor of soup who was so mean, people called him an actual Nazi? Funny, right? But at some point we used this so much, it lost its funny connotations and just become yet another way to attack and dismiss rather than engage someone else online. Femi-nazi, social Nazi, spelling Nazi. Ok, I'm pretty sure none of the people thus labeled have ever killed anyone. They aren't jack booted thugs. As bossy and annoying as I may be when I am being my most pedantic, I am not marching anyone off to their deaths. It's overkill. And it's overkill that has been so oft repeated, it might as well be femi-kittens, or spelling angels for all the impact it has. To add insult to injury, the overuse of the word nazi, has decreased the shock value of the word when applied properly to National Socialists, Hitler, and people closely allied with them. Once, hearing that an actual band of Neo-Nazis was marching in a US town resulted in national shock and outrage. Now it barely gets a tut-tut. The people and their behavior have not changed. Our exhaustion at hearing this term has. It's lost its force, but not its ability to divide and dismiss. You can bet that when you use such a term to describe an annoying group of internet harridans, no one is thinking you have scored hilarious points. They are thinking, "Here's another fool who thinks they are Jerry Seinfeld and can't even make a decent point." Do us all a favor, leave the jokes to the professionals. There are no Nazis telling you to use the right form of their, there, or they're. I'm sending this one to the Eastern Front.
And while we're at it, can we stop appending 'tard to the end of every doggone thing? First, it isn't very nice to retarded people, who are usually nicer than whoever you are thus insulting, and don't deserve to get dragged into your mudslinging battle. Second, it's just a silly sounding and incredibly lazy way to insult people. It is more suited to middle schoolers on a playground than grown folks arguing politics. Religitard, Republitard, Demotard... the only one stupid here is whoever invented this particular compound word. And I have used it. I am right now hanging my head in shame, though you can't see me. I shall kill it with fire.
Then there are the words people think are cute, cool, and faster than the words they replace, but just for some reason get in my ear like that bug on Star Trek, The Wrath of Kahn.
I'm a Disney fan, spend a lot of time on the comment boards and tip boards, blog about it, make videos about it, the usual. So of course I've picked up on one or two words from these places - like ticks at a campout. Don't shoot me, but I hate, hate, hate the term rezzies, or resies, or ressies, or however the heck you are supposed to write that. It's short for reservation. It sounds like something you should be catching in Pokemon Go! It also sounds like a junior high school valley girl making an '80s movie when I use it. Given I am old enough to have been in junior high school in the '80, this is not at all attractive. I will not use this term no matter how many Disney fanatics say it like a hypnotic talisman. It's going in the scrapbook, and that's the only book it belongs in.
I know I'm going to get a lot of flak for this one, but can we stop sticking momma, babe, or diva onto the end of things?
You are not the Food Babe. You are a grown woman who is presenting herself as a spokesperson for healthy lifestyles. I never was a babe. Even if I were, I don't think it's cute or original anymore, and it is not some kind of declaration of our feminine power either, or at least, not a very effective one. It just reduces us to sexual status while we're busy pretending we're still young and edgy. I'm not edgy. When everyone from five year old dancers to seventy year old church group leaders have used these monikers, it's played out. The only cute use of the name Babe is pink and lives in a sty. And to be honest, given my diet, the last thing I want is that image in anyone's head when they read my stuff.
Let's be more original going forward. The other ladies got there first and overused these terms. Nobody is impressed with it anymore. No, not princess or queen either. Most especially, not goddess. Ugh. Try harder. There are thousands of words in the English language, and lots of really cool ones that describe women that we aren't even trying to use! How about broad, lioness, gal, baroness, chantreuse, onna bougeisha, Amazon, empress, enchantress... or harridan? Use your imagination. And guys, joining the ladies in this abuse of cutesy gendered nicknames isn't cool or edgy either. You're not just a hunk, a dude, or a bro, are you? You can do better, can't you? If you want to use cutesy names, why not be really original? Cowboy, emperor... well, you can think of something fitting, I'm sure.
Stealing words and changing their meanings while we are still using them should be some sort of crime. Not one you'd go to jail for, just social crime where the punishment is being made to copy pages out of dictionary or something. Or maybe be forced to listen to Weird Al on a loop for 24 hours.
There are three words that really stand out in this category, and you probably already guessed them--gay, retard, and our brand new entry, autistic. Using gay as a pejorative has almost become so mainstream as to be unnoticed. And opinions seem split on just how rude it is. Think about what this says about how words can take on new meanings. Gay men, homosexuals, were frequently disparaged with terms like fairy, queer, or fag. One such word was gay. So they decided to reclaim the word, and demonstrate their newfound pride in it. About the time that it became widely accepted, youths began calling their friends homosexuals (in a very pointed way, initially) by referring to them as gay. They did it so relentlessly that the word became dilute. Soon it was broadened to mean anything a little wussy or weak. Then still further diluted to mean lame, corny, stupid, or even just boring. Yes, gay became a catch all put down. So most people who use it can claim they didn't mean it that way, and they aren't lying. I've caught myself using it a lot. Too much. It's such a worthless little pejorative with no power and imprecise as all get out, with the added bonus of potentially insulting a nice homosexual man who wasn't even involved in my conversation. I was going to put this one in the closet with the mothballs, but I'll still need it to refer to gay people, and maybe talk about being happy around Christmas time. So I'll just check it with the coat checker, for now.
Retarded and autistic fall into the same category. I know you really mean, stupid, ignorant, or just goofy as all get out, and I've said retarded so many times you might assume I am suffering some sort of speech brain disorder. But it's not nice, it's not accurate, and it's played out. I promise to try really hard not pull this one out of the closet for any purpose but to use it to describe an actual medical condition.
SJW falls into this category of words that have got to go from my lexicon. SJW is an abbreviation for social justice warriors. The term was originated by people who wanted more people to stand up and make a difference in social situations, to become warriors for social justice. As these people had more and more confrontations online and on the campus with people who just didn't agree with many of the causes they were supporting, or with their methods, the term became judged less positively. Soon, many were bandying this term about as a definite insult, rather than a proud title. Whether or not the original users of the term like it, the term has become contorted to now encompass the most extreme behavior. People who use it generally ignore or discount the positive actions of SJWs, and apply the term in disparaging way. Just using the term SJW is a dismissal of everything the target has said, encourages others to join in the fray, and lumps them in with every other SJW any of the participants have every encountered, no matter how different they might really be.
If you think the term only marginalizes the labeled party, you fail to grasp the full dynamic. As soon as the online debater whips out this acronym, they identify themselves as an anti-feminist, or male rights advocate. As hard as it is for us older folks to imagine, it can actually be seen as quite negative to be referred to as a male rights advocate. You see, this word combination has been stolen by their ideological opponents in the same way SJW has been usurped by theirs. And it has the same effect.
While I'm at it, we can include third wave feminist in that category. Whatever meaning it had when someone coined it, it has become a weapon to bash others over the head. It isn't that these words are good or bad. Its that using them immediately shuts down the listener. They don't care what you say anymore. You've said the word that triggers the reaction. Now, you've become the character reading the script playing in their head. I don't need that one anyway. The old stand by feminist or women's rights activist, or just equal rights supporter, works better for me. I don't work in academia. I don't need to describe the entire history of the women's rights movement every time I post a Tweet. I think I'll dump this lot into the great garbage disposal of words. I'd burn it, but I already used a fire reference.
Team words put people in neat little categories so we can then pretend that every single thing they say is part and parcel of the identity we just fixed them with. Liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, religious, Cowboys fans... Sometimes, we don't stop there. We put people in some pretty exclusive boxes that straightjacket the person they are applied to, even though there is no agreement that they are even members of said group, let alone that they hold the same views as others in that group.
If I hear one more disparaging use of 'Merica by some jerk who thinks all citizens of this great country have two teeth and graduated from the second grade, I'm going to explode like rocket's red glare on the fourth of July. It's cute when someone is making fun of their own people, their kith and kin, with a reference to their mannerisms and speech habits. Uncle John may say "Merica is the greatest nation on Earth!" But when you make fun of him, the rest of the clan has a right to get their back up. There's a difference between a gentle ribbing and an attack on someone else's nationality. If a friendly Canuk laughs and says "Merica" when he sees someone trying to feed beer to a bald eagle... well, it's all in good fun. And I expect him to take it the same way when we laugh at the fella in the moose ears mooning his hockey team's rivals on national tv. It's the ones that seem to delight in attacking the USA as if we all sleep with a bottle of Jim Beam and a shotgun by our beds and think the Commies are out to get us. The ones that assume the average American doesn't know English is the official language of England and the US. The ones who think this term substitutes for understanding people and subtle thought. It would do these folks well to remember there is not a state, nor a country in the world that is so perfect that it can really afford to poke fun at the others without risking a peek in the mirror first. You might be a redneck if you love Jeff Foxworthy jokes, but if you think they are describing a group of people who are stupider and less worthy than your particular ethnic, social, or religious group, you might be a self-righteous, xenophobic jerk. The fun of these kinds of jokes is recognizing a bit of oneself in them, not looking down on the people they describe. It was supposed to be fun. If it's not going to be, let's find a new favorite phrase, guys. This one has been taken over by jerks and smug hipsters. I'll just put this on the shelf next to ghetto and whazzup!
(Ergh. Did I just say hipster? Alright, this one too seems about ready for the ashcan. You tell me if we should ditch it.)
Atheists are often tarred as anti-theists, even though some of them have never even heard the term, and certainly would not agree with the views expressed by anti-theists. Whichever group you are in, you probably don't want to be confused with the other one. But by labeling the atheist an anti-theist, or a Republican a Tea Partier, the person labeling them is free to assume the worst characteristics of whichever one they choose and ignore the person's real opinions and positions. Sometimes people think they are being specific when they say New Atheists. I don't think anyone really knows exactly what a new atheist is, as opposed to old atheists, except that it is socially acceptable to hate the former, while at least claiming to respect the latter. If you're calling someone who sees themselves as belonging to the latter group a new atheist, and then attributing all the characteristics you think are associated with the title to that individual, you aren't respecting anyone. People shouldn't be put in groups without their permission. My experience is, the term new atheist, is as meaningful as the words new and improved on a box of detergent.
Then there's a favorite word libertarians use for anyone who argues against their specific points - statist. The thing is, I've never heard anyone identify themselves as a statist. This is a term only applied by the group membership, to someone they think isn't true enough to their beliefs. It's applied like a modern version of accusations of witchcraft or sacrilege, a purity test for libertarians, and a protective spell against outsiders. No one is safe from the accusation of statism. No one is pure enough. I believe if Ayn Rand came back to life and wrote a reply to some Libertarian commentary, she would be instantly branded a statist by half the people participating. If the term is so easily applied to nearly anyone, does it have any usefulness? Especially since no one actually identifies their own views as statist? Who are these mysterious statists who can only be identified by Libertarians? I say we tar and feather this word and ride it out of town on a rail. Anyone with me?
You're all statists.
Sometimes a word gets used so often, and misused so often, that just hearing it sets my teeth on edge. Inclusion in this category depends on what conversations you take part in, so you may not have heard these as often as I have. The words you are tired of hearing may be completely different.
Inbred is one such word. Inbred has a literal meaning: born into a line of familial cross breeds. The Royalty of a few hundred years ago, purebred dogs, and some isolated communities are said to be inbred. It can also be used to refer to people who act insular and at the same time stupid. Hillbillies will often be tarred with this broad brush, I'm afraid. But then some people broaden the term some more to mean anyone stupid and hateful. Now Donald Trump is being labeled inbred by people who just don't like him. Keep broadening the definition and you get people saying the entire state of Texas is inbred. Ok, now the word is so imprecise as to be pointless. Maybe we can dust this one off in a few years and reuse it when it has become retro. Right now, it goes in the attic.
It can share a box with triggered. I remember the first time I heard this word used to describe someone reacting to a stimuli. It was actually rather scientific and dry. My degree is in psychology. We would simply say that a particular reaction was triggered by an emotionally laden stimuli. It was a way to get people to stop thinking of emotions and reactions as things that someone made them do, and realizing they were reacting, without conscious intent, to stimuli they had become conditioned to respond to. They could likewise decondition themselves, sometimes with a little help, and stop reacting automatically to those stimuli. Stated that way, does it sound like something you'd use in an acerbic comment on YouTube? --Well what if we said that a student was triggered by reading a passage from Jane Eyre and needed to go have a lay down in a darkened room, also called a safe space? Now does it maybe sound like something that would become the butt of jokes? They've ruined a perfectly good description of an actual immediate and mostly involuntary stimuli-response reaction. I will not help to degrade this perfectly good term further. I won't make jokes about being triggered. If you can consciously decide to walk out of class and have a lie down, in my view, you weren't triggered, you just reacted. There's already a perfectly good way to describe that. You can just say you reacted emotionally to the book or movie or whatever, and felt the need to go have a lie down. The word is ready for a spell in a darkened safe space until it can stop causing people to laugh and point.
Well, I'll stop here. I have enough words to try to excise from my lexicon at one time. And I'm guessing by the time I finally stop tripping over them while I write, there'll be a whole new crop that make me want to rip the letter keys off my keyboard. I hope while you were reading you thought up a few of your own. Maybe you'll help make a more interesting conversation out there with the new words you will substitute... or maybe you'll start us on the path to that new annoyingly overused phrase or term. Either way, happy reading and writing!