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Iconic Words to Curate Less Often

Lake Superior State University, located at Sault St Marie on the Michigan-Ontario border, has just issued its fortieth list of “banned words”, a tradition started by the late WT Rabe, who worked in the university’s public relations department, a strange place, some might think, to find a language purist. The idea of a list of banned words is a familiar one – we all have our particular peeves, or at least the old and grumpy among us do (perhaps even the young and grumpy); but LSSU claims to have been first in with the idea of an annual list.

Some of this year’s words will be familiar to a cisatlantic audience and some less so – they may be still on their way over. The verb “curate” (a tightly curated cheeseboard, for example) qualifies as one of the most annoying, principally for its hundred per cent proof concentration of pretentiousness. The term of endearment “bae” (before anyone else) certainly sounds toe-curling but wasn’t familiar to me before I saw it on the list. Here and there, there seems to be a little conceptual confusion: “selfie” is not an annoying word, it’s an annoying practice and its overuse by journalists (why not just ignore these monsters of egotism?) is also annoying; “enhanced interrogation” (torture), which is on the LSSU list, is an example of the kind of standard euphemism used by the powerful that Orwell wrote about seventy or eighty years ago. It shouldn’t really be in the same category of words misused, overused or just plain useless in which you might place “iconic”, “leverage” “go-to”, “must-have”, “drill-down”, “drive” (meaning create or enhance – “driving traffic”), “mission”, “journey”, “core values” or “no-brainer”.

Language busybodies, those who like to remind others of rules or rap them on the knuckles over sloppy usage or lazy diction, have not been getting a clear run recently. Leftie commentators in particular seem to view an insistence on what used to be called, without any complexes, “good English” as a form of class oppression. The main argument for good English is that it facilitates comprehension, but it might also be argued that feeling a need to express oneself “correctly” can enhance clarity of thought. The more work you can manage to put into your writing – obviously a function of how much time you have available – the better it will tend to be. Thomas Mann, after all, said that a writer was a person who found writing more difficult than ordinary people do.

Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, published last autumn, was one of those works which tended to give comfort to the let it all hang out brigade, whatever its intentions. “Many prescriptive rules [about grammar],” Pinker argued, “originated for screwball reasons.” But, as Nathan Heller argued persuasively in a review in The New Yorker, Pinker’s own suggestions about usage can easily be challenged. His points about the richness (and the rule-breaking) found in demotic speech or in literary style, for example, are interesting, but not strictly relevant to the question of whether we should have standards in common written communication. It would be foolish of course to deny the links between speech patterns and social class (“Don’t say ‘I amn’t’, dear; it’s common.”). But we must all fit in a little. Going to Oxford and abandoning one’s regional patterns of speech and accent is an extreme example of such fitting in. Heller argues sensibly for diversity in speech and the maintenance of standards in the written language.

Of course one problem about the notion of banning words is that it is only a game: we lack the coercive means and the best we can do is issue the odd impotent snort for publication in the letters columns of the better newspapers. For me, the worst offenders are possibly not the jargon words of management speak quoted above but the twee, facetious words newspaper lifestyle writers use to add a veneer of I know not what (knowingness perhaps) when writing about a number of things for which we already have perfectly plain and perfectly acceptable words: thus eatery for restaurant, hostelry for pub, nosh for food, tipple for drink, imbibing for drinking, naughty for tasty/fattening; it goes on and on. But of course there is no hope of banning such words, any more than there is of banning “iconic”, when used to mean little more than “been around a bit”.

LSSU's banned words
New Yorker review of Steven Pinker's book