Words for the Dumpster
With the last tick of 2013, let’s throw out the most annoying, overused and abused words of the year. A few of these terms, “twerking” or “stay classy,” die a natural death when someone like John McCain starts using them — the aural equivalent of a comb-over. Others need a push.
Many of these words originated in the food world and would have been perfectly fine had they not migrated to the general population. Some came out of mid-management office talk. What these hapless clichés have in common is this: They have been so diluted by misuse that they’ve lost their meaning. And like bad holiday sweaters and Sarah Palin outrage, the following list is highly selective. To the Dumpster:
Artisan: Once the legitimate term for cheese makers with alternative grooming habits and creative body art, this word has been co-opted by all the wrong people selling all the wrong products. Toilet-cleaning chemicals. Convenience store “food” with pull dates measured in decades. This is what happens when farmers markets fail to sue for copyright infringement.
Brand: A close second to artisan, used as a verb and a noun for self-promotion. It sprang from corporate marketing, and then went viral after every 9-year-old with a Facebook page or a Twitter handle began obsessing over how to shape random life events into a monetized narrative. It’s bad enough that politicians worry about their brand. But prisoners?
Gluten-free: It’s a public service to warn the less than 1 percent of the population who suffer from celiac disease that bakery products might contain something that could make them sick. But putting this label on things that have no connection is a cynical corporate play for clueless consumers who buy something simply because they think it’s healthy. Red Bull boasts of being gluten-free. So is paint thinner.
Whatever: Long ago, “whatever” was a cover for inexpressive ignorance — Hitler invaded Poland and then, whatever. Now this word reigns as a facile dismissive: I know it’s Mother’s Day, but whatever. For the fifth year in a row, “whatever” was just rated the nation’s most annoying word in a survey done by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, beating out the hardy perennials “like” and “you know” and “just saying.”
24/7: No longer a byword for helpful availability, 24/7 evokes bad hours, poor pay and some customer service rep in India trying to explain an HDMI cable at 3 a.m. My bank is 24/7, or so they say; after a half-hour discussion with someone from this stellar institution, the “associate” said I should Google the problem. Well, yes, because Google is 24/7 in the only way that this term makes sense: It’s robotic.
End of the day: A counter, seemingly, to the above dreary infinity. But think again: There is no end to the way that “end of the day” has been used to signify anything but a close of business. No doubt, the rise of 24/7 has made end of the day impossible, at least in the news and public affairs cycle. President Barack Obama is a chronic abuser of “end of the day.” Most recently, he used it to describe how his health care law would be viewed. Raises the question: What day are you talking about?
World-class: Makes the list because Donald Trump, who is decidedly not, has almost single-handedly run it into the ground. All of his casinos, golf courses, hotels and other concentrators of showy square-footage are world class, even those that ended up in bankruptcy. He is also self-declared in that realm. “I am the evidence,” he said, attacking wind turbines in Scotland that threaten his golf interests. “I am a world-class expert in tourism.” He promised that his world-class private investigators in Hawaii would expose the shocking truth of Obama’s birth. A better use for them would be back in Scotland, on the Loch Ness case.
Best practices: Just below “world-class” in the category of crutch words used to enhance mundane tasks. As a rule, if you can imagine anyone in office casual using a particular term in a presentation, it’s best to keep it under the fluorescent lights of a meeting room. By some peculiar osmosis, what happens in management seminars keeps infecting normal speech. I asked my neighbor what kind of tomatoes to grow this year, and she went on a long discussion of “botanical best practices.” I put potatoes in the ground.
A final thought: I’m as guilty as anyone in letting these banish-worthy words get into print. This column is both artisan and gluten-free, an extension of my brand in a 24/7 environment full of world-class competitors. Whatever. At the end of the day, I’ll try to use best practices and resolve to do better.
In that spirit, I renew an earlier objection to “literally.” It’s become the most overused of phony emphasis words, as in I went to the store, and they were out of kumquats — I mean, they were literally out of kumquats!
Timothy Egan is a columnist for The New York Times.