Thursday, April 17, 2014

5 Words I Can't Stand

Some words I love, others I despise.  The words I despise I don't use, but they still fill me with trembling hatred when I encounter them in books, online, and everyday speech.  Expounding on them here seems a good step towards clarifying their inadequacies for my own benefit, or perhaps even finding others who hate them as much as I do.

Note: Since I've already beaten to death my hatred of the words utilize and buddy (not to mention my annoyance with unnecessary quotation marks, which have an entire blog devoted to their misuse), I've left them off the list.

#1. Various

People overuse this word to expand on a list or topic in a way I find frustratingly vague.  What do you mean your work has been published in "various magazines"?  How can I imagine the "various artists" in your exhibit?  If the item you're expanding on is that important, I recommend using examples, or trying a more specific adjective:
X  The banquet will feature coffee, tea, and various hors d'oeuvres.
O  The banquet will feature coffee, tea, chicken fingers, cut-up pieces of fruit, and a large platter of cheese and crackers.
O The banquet will feature coffee, tea, and lots of hors d'oeuvres.

#2. Disseminate

The second of two Officespeak words to make the list, disseminate shares a root word with semen, thus making it a strange term to use in the workplace.  It means simply to pass on, to spread widely, or to let people know, but expresses the sentiment in a fashion both pretentious and inadvertently evocative of ejaculation.

#3. Earbud

Granted, this is a useful (and accurate) way to distinguish earphones worn over the head from ones worn inside the ear, though I never liked this word and avoid it as much as I avoid wearing earbuds themselves.

#4. Chapbook

Used almost exclusively in the literary world, this word has its origins in early publishing practices.  Now, however, people use it to refer to short collections of poetry not quite long enough to call an actual book, but long enough to warrant a binding and title.  I find the word derogatory, as if such collections were inherently unworthy of the term book.  It also reminds me of elementary school-era transitions from picture books to chapter books (many of which still had pictures).  We stopped using the term chapter books once we'd phased picture books out of our reading lists, and who now would refer to Lolita as a chapter book?

#5. Apparatus

A meaningless word, common in dense theoretical texts and self-aggrandizing works, its technical definition is
n. 1. a combination of instruments or materials having a particular function.
but I more commonly hear it used as a way of overcomplicating a machine, structure, or invention.  Some writers even use it for governments or organizations (e.g. the state apparatus) in a way that doesn't seem entirely appropriate. 

But more importantly, apparatus is a word that fails to create a clear image in the reader's mind and transforms the sentence around it into mere jargon.  Try to picture an apparatus: you can't do it!  (The closest I can come is an assembly or pipes within a wall, an image I know to be inaccurate but instinctively think of anyway.)  When language fails to convey a specific meaning, that language isn't doing its job, and when such obfuscation becomes commonplace, we accept it as part of the status quo and submit to its vagueness.  That's the danger in such language, and one we must avoid at all costs.