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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Bleached Words

If someone says you are awesome, do they fall down on their knees and cover their face because they are in such awe of you they must avert their eyes? If someone tells you you are wonderful, do their eyes wide and sparkly, like a child on Christmas morning realizing that (yes, Virginia) Santa does exist? Do Awesome, Wonderful, Amazing and other superlatives mean anything anymore?

We use these words so much, they're practically leeched of color. We've sucked the power right out of them. Awesome is such a toothless, meaning-free word that, when someone tells you they left that report on your desk you are liable to say (as I do), "Oh, awesome! thanks." But the report, and it's miraculous appearance on your desk is not awesome. It's not even great (which used to be a forceful enough superlative.) It's just ordinary.

Why do we do this to language? I am so guilty of this. It's like when you write down a word and suddenly it starts to look wrong. Recipe. Recipe. Recipe. Recipe. Did I spell that right? And then you say it in your head, (reciperecipereciperecipe) until it doesn't even sound like a real word. Words are powerful, damn straight, but they only contain as much power as we imbue them with. If we de-fang superlatives (Super. Amazing. Outstanding. Fabulous. Incredible) how can we use these words effectively when writing? It's like the world's most dangerous poker game, where we just keep upping the ante, making previously powerful words less so and looking for newer words with more oomph to them. If we keep this up, we're going to have to break out Supercalifragilisticespialodocious to describe an exemplary grilled cheese sandwich.

On a recent Here And Now show, author Arthur Plotnik talked about bleached words and suggested new words that we might dust off and use to inject some life into our listless vocabulary. I'm a bit dubious of telling someone they are wallopingly fresh, but it's better than saying they're 'cool' which doesn't mean much.

You can check out Arthur Plotnik's BETTER THAN GREAT book here.

What word do you overuse until it's bleached of meaning? Come on, confession time.

3 comments:

  1. Cool. Awesome post. Really, it's wonderful. :P

    Yes, I'm a smart ass. But I think some of this is just the natural progression of language. Some might say the coarsening or dumbing down of language. I do think our modern vocabularies are lacking in comparison to generations past, and will probably get worse with the use of technology generated short cut words. U no what I mn?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I really, really (totally) appreciate it!
      ;) smart asses unite!
      I know you are right, it's a natural ebb and flow of language that some words burn super hot and others cool. But like you said, it might not come back if people are so used to using lazy words, or shorthand. I mean, it's like Wheel of Fortune out there - vowels are EXPENSIVE! So we don't need them. c u l8ter (I don't even know if I did that right, that's how un-text-savvy I am.

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