Oh Really, Another Worst Word?

Apropos of crutch words, apropos of despicable words, apropos of very word-world as we know it, there's another word rant that I must bring to your immediate attention. Really. Really! Really? Oh yes.

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Apropos of crutch words, apropos of despicable words, apropos of the very word-world as we know it, there's another word rant that I must bring to your immediate attention. Really. Really! Really? Oh yes. Neil Genzlinger has a lengthy diatribe in the New York Times about the overproliferation of the word really, as punctuated with that insufferable symbol the question mark, to make the word even more insufferable, in the TV world. Whenever we get a rant about a word, though, we get more uses of that word showcased, as if to really bring the point home, and in Genzlinger's discussion we see it no less than 30 times! 30 times! Really. It's almost like subsisting on pizza to make yourself stop eating it. But regardless of how he himself is contributing to the crumbling of civilization on the pages of a newspaper too couth to use certain other overused words, Genzlinger writes blithely, "Civilization crumbles a little bit almost every time I turn on the television, and a single word-and-punctuation-mark combination is inflicting the damage." Update: Jerry Seinfeld agrees with us, writing in a letter to the editor addressed to Genzlinger, "You crumbled a bit of civilization off there yourself." Oh, snap. Really.

Genzlinger goes on to clarify in his piece that what he hates is not the natural interrogative really?—as in, did you really dye your hair purple?—but really as a snark-word, "undoing 2,000 years’ worth of human progress." He clarifies further, "I’m referring to the more recent, faddish use of it: delivered with a high-pitched sneer to indicate a contempt so complete that it requires no clarification." Clarifies it he does, still further, really:

Say a co-worker shows up for a pivotal meeting wearing a plaid blouse and a polka-dot skirt. In the old days you might have said: “Well, that is certainly an interesting fashion choice. Myself, I prefer something more subdued when sitting down with a client.” Now, though, if you’ve succumbed to the loathsome trend, you will simply aim as withering a look as you can at your colleague, say “Really?” and walk away.

Wait, so, this is actually the purple hair scenario, sort of, except without commenting on what it is specifically that's making you utter the word (a dash of mystery, there), plus a withering look? This really? is akin to the seriously? (which the writers of Grey's Anatomy were pretty guilty of throwing around way too often a few million seasons ago). It utilized the uptalk-friendly question-exclamation instead of a simple question, so the more appropriate punctuation for it would probably be the interrobang, but we digress (also, that outfit could work, maybe, depending on the size of the plaid and polkas?).

Genzlinger says really has long jumped the shark, beaten to death by scriptwriters who "keep trotting out the word as if it were something fresh and original," yet I'm not sure this is true. Maybe this is true on TV, though many of his examples appear to be from previous seasons, but at least in life most of us have passed really and moved on to ranting about other words—actually and literally, for example. The simple really? has become nearly a relic from the past, a catchphrase of another era, something Valley Girls might say while snapping their gum, like, totally radical, really. So stop trying to make really? happen, TV writers, in so much as you are actually still doing that. After all, O RLY? appears to have peaked online in the mid-2000s. This is hardly the with-it lingo of the younger generations, unless we're talking about young'uns with a truly advanced retro sensibility. (Seinfeld supports our point that this is old hat, writing [emphasis ours] "I did a Saturday Night Live Weekend Update segment titled 'Really!?!' with Seth Meyers a few years ago. It was a blast and the audience loved it.")

Genzlinger gets another thing a bit chronologically backward, in my opinion, writing, "People repeat what they hear on TV, and so “Really?” keeps spreading in everyday life. And since everyday life is now patterned after the fake everyday life of reality TV, a vicious cycle has asserted itself." O RLY? I think that, in fact, TV writers have stolen the word from their real-life "hip" friends and possibly children as opposed to the opposite occurrence. Since scripts are written ahead of time, what we're getting now may well be an bunch of antiquated reallys, a faint and largely irrelevant echo of the way people really talk now. I haven't heard a snarky really? in months, have you?

This, however, we'll agree with, really, for real, honestly, seriously, and actually:

The derisive “Really?” is a cop-out word, for television characters and real people. It relieves the user of having to clarify his own position or approach new ideas with genuine curiosity.

But given Genzlinger's broader point, the Times might want to look in the mirror. Really.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.