With some regularity, someone writes about cute popular words and phrases that are played out. Some are trite. Some are memes. Some just outlived their useful lifespan. Some people will disagree, and words, being words, will either continue to be used or not, because they don’t like being told what to do. But what about the dictionary (forgive the personification, for a moment) telling us what words we’re allowed to use?
We all misspeak or misuse words sometimes. Maybe we’ve latched onto phrases our parents handed down incorrectly. Or perhaps we picked them up from a movie, television, or social media with no clue they were being used inappropriately—or even worse, offensively.
It’s OK; most of us unknowingly use problematic words and phrases from time to time without thinking about their origins or how they could hurt some groups of people. What’s not OK is to keep doing it once you know it’s wrong.
Of course, dictionaries are things, not people, and thus lack sentience. They can’t be offended. They can’t decide right from wrong. They have no feelings. But the people who write dictionaries do. Who are these people? Beats me.
Is this the thoughtful product of a renowned lexicographer, historian of language with decades of perspective, or the ideas of an intern studying gender and grievance? Does it matter to you? It does to me, as dictionaries provide the mechanisms by which our shared language is given meaning. Judges turn to it for definitions. Writers as well. Regular people look up words to find out what they mean. We expect dictionaries to be above the fray, to contain legitimate definitions of words for the whole of society. Okay, not the Urban Dictionary, but real dictionaries.
There are plenty of words out there to choose from in the, ahem, dictionary. But, to help narrow it down, we rounded up some commonly misused words and phrases that have the potential to offend.
We’re not going to leave you verbally high and dry either. We’re providing some better alternatives for each. Take a look and see how many you may be misusing.
What makes this characterization particularly troubling isn’t that people are using words or phrases wrongly, such as “presently” for now, or “begs the question” for raising the question. The characterization of “misusing” words is false. The condemned words aren’t being “misused” at all, but are words that whoever came up with this would prefer you not use because they deem them offensive or problematic. Some unnamed, unknown gnome toiling away in the boiler room of dictionary [dot] com wants his feelings to dictate your word choice in the name of “misuse.”
You can read for yourself the particulars, but to give a law-related example:
If you find something or someone to be hysterical, meaning funny, that’s OK. If you’re calling someone’s actions hysterical because they’re being emotional, then you may want to reconsider.
Hysterical’s earliest meaning was “of, relating to, or characterized by hysteria,” and while we now think of hysteria as irrational panic, it was, for centuries, a medical diagnosis. Hysteria comes from the Greek hysterikós, which means “suffering in the womb.”
So, yeah, the ancient Greeks believed that when a woman was behaving irrationally—or in a way that they considered to be irrational—it was because her uterus was literally wandering around her body causing trouble (Kory Stamper, “What It Really Means To Call A Woman Hysterical“).
Plus, have you ever heard a man being called hysterical … we’re guessing not.
If “we’re guessing not,” assuming the writer doesn’t suffer from multiple personality disorder (not that there’s anything wrong with that), it’s likely because “we’ve” never ventured off the Oberlin campus. This is the gender studies version of the word “hysterical,” which is absolutely and unquestionably believed by all the people who write ethnographies for their Ph.D.s.
Even at the dictionary [dot] com mothership, “hysteria” has an actual meaning.
- an uncontrollable outburst of emotion or fear, often characterized by irrationality, laughter, weeping, etc.
- a psychoneurotic disorder characterized by violent emotional outbreaks, disturbances of sensory and motor functions, and various abnormal effects due to autosuggestion.
- Psychiatry, conversion disorder.
There’s nothing there about it only applying to women. And a better dictionary might include its broader applications, such as “mass hysteria,” which some might suggest is pretty valuable concept these days. And what does our gnome suggest instead?
- That was an intense reaction.
- I felt impassioned after that scene.
- We were vehement in our position.
- He made his point with a piercing speech.
There’s only one problem: none of these “better alternatives” are the same as hysterical. They lack the same meaning. They fail to convey the same irrationality. Shit, they aren’t even close.
In his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell saw the problem clearly.
Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.
Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
Orwell argues that this decline isn’t inevitable, but that reversing it requires acknowledging it and confronting it. Now you know.