Recently, I noticed a headline in The New York Times that featured the word tasked. This is among my least favorite rhetorical strategies—the verbing of the noun. Contemporary American English is rife with such constructions: to journal, to parent, to impact, to effect. I wince a little every time I come across one.
As a writer, I’ve spent my life immersed in language, but this relationship, like all relationships, is fraught; for each word I love (conditional, complicity, complication—do we start to see a pattern?) there are also words, or word types, that I loathe. These include euphemisms, nicknames, and what I think of as disagreements. Working backwards, let’s take epiphany as an example, not because I don’t admire the lilting rhythms of those four syllables, but because I don’t believe epiphanies exist. Sure, we may have certain “Aha!” moments. But what do they add up to if they do not alter, in some fundamental fashion, the way we live? We’re born, we die, and no one ever changes really. Even for James Joyce, an epiphany is just a literary device.
Other words I avoid include happy, sad, normal, truth. As with epiphany, it’s not the locutions, those arrangements of vowels and consonants, so much as the simplifications they evoke. Truth, for instance … what is it? How can we define anything definitively? I’m not referring to “alternative facts,” or “fake news,” but to a more existential matter: our inability, as human beings, to see the whole picture, to understand anything other than our own small slice of life.
The words I like, and there are many, open us up to subtleties, to questions, rather than shutting us down with a fixed response. Think about claustrophobia or grief. Think of a word such as containment, which can be a political posture or a personal one. Think about fragility, or reckoning. Other words—good and evil, say, or obligation, guilt and innocence—provoke associations that are predictable and platitudinous. Do I need to say I also have no use for them? These are words that tell, don’t ask. These are words that come to us ready-made. “They will construct your sentences for you,” George Orwell cautions in “Politics and the English Language,” “even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent.” Their bland generality is the problem. What room is there for nuance in such flattened expressions and ideas?
For a while, I liked the word hilarious. I used it quite a lot. But eventually, I began to notice the drawn-out quality of it, almost onomatopoetic, and it felt forced. For me, it became a word that telegraphed too much, that directed a particular response. The same is true of brave, which has become one of my least favorite words because of the easy way it gets thrown around to describe any idiosyncratic act or statement. It has become the essence of cliché.
Euphemisms and nicknames also resolve, in almost every case, to cliché. They are deflecting words, reducing complex concepts or difficult realities to a kind of packaged terminology. Consider pass away, a phrase that belies the rupture (physical, spiritual) to which it refers. It’s intended to soften the bite of death, to make us feel better, or safer. But how can that be? There’s nothing safe about death. It is an end point, and we don’t pass through it on the way to some eternal rest; we simply disappear. When I think of death, I am not seeking consolation. I am reckoning with inevitability. “So here it is at last, the distinguished thing,” Henry James is reported to have said during his final illness. He didn’t mean passing away. James was talking about dying, which is a word that says what it means without equivocating—as blunt as, I imagine, the experience of death will be.
Certain synonyms affect me almost like euphemisms, because they’re equally unnecessary. Here are a few I especially dislike: tale, tome, scribe. They are awkward and unwieldy, words that exist only to draw attention to themselves. I prefer to stick with story, book, writer. I prefer to keep my words direct.
Then, the nicknames, many having to do with place: Frisco for San Francisco, Cali for California, the heartland for the midwestern United States. This language is undefined to the point of losing meaning—buzzwords that say nothing about the landscapes they claim to animate. A single word to describe the immense and varied middle of the country? How can it possibly tell us anything? Sarah Palin, after all, tied herself to the heartland—all the way from Alaska. Equally, if not more conspicuous, are the sobriquets attached to the city where I live, Los Angeles. La La Land, Tinseltown, Lotusland, El Lay: Each represents its own “slightly derisive diminutive,” to borrow a phrase from Thom Andersen’s 2003 documentary, Los Angeles Plays Itself.
Anderson was referring to a different nickname for Los Angeles when he wrote that, the initials L.A. I don’t use them either because I agree they make the city small. But there’s another reason for my reticence, beyond reduction or diminution, a broader sense of words and what they do. Language has limits, but it is rich and multivalent nevertheless, which is to say that it has power. It matters what we say and how we say it. In a very real way, it shapes our world. If nothing else, this is the lesson of the loose lips and even looser thinking of the current moment, which makes me only more determined to choose carefully the words I do not use.