Monday, January 5, 2009
Lake Superior State University gets a lot of ink around New Year's every year when it releases its annual List of Banished Words, those it unilaterally deems to have been overused during the previous year.
This normally would be all to the good, but the banishers never seem to offer decent replacements for the banished. So "green" is overused? Very well, what shall we employ in its stead? "Carbon footprint," too? Let's face it, those are useful terms with particular meanings, and it is not their fault people write and say them a lot. After all, those words stand for important -- even vital -- concepts.
You could say the same for "a," "and" and "the." Shall we banish them, too?
Bunch of nattering negativists, those guys at Lake Superior State, but at least their campaign gets that obscure third-level school in remote and frozen Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, into the public eye for a while.
Let us now praise Wayne State University farther south in Detroit, which takes a positive attitude toward words. It wants to bring good words back from oblivion.
Its "glorious variety" of words gives English "an unparalleled capacity for nuance and precise expression," say the Wayne Staters. Reviving certain words that have fallen into obscurity "would make the speaking and writing of English a livelier, snappier pastime and more satisfying for us all." Bravo!
And here are the first three words on the Wayne State list:
"Cahoots . . . Questionable collaboration, secret partnerships. I think my senator is in cahoots with fundamentalists.
"Charlatan . . . Quack, Imposter. This guy claims his anti-aging cream really works, but I think he's just a charlatan.
"Defenestrate . . . To throw out of a window. Bob threatened to defenestrate his laptop if it didn't stop eating his data."
Followed by farrago, galoshes, higgledy-piggledy, mendacious, mercurial, nonplussed, obsequious, quixotic, resplendent, sagacity, skullduggery, sublime, supercilious and sycophant.
All excellent words, words with precise meanings, words with lilt and zest. But I would argue that they are not obscure, that they are all in common use in publications aimed at readers with more than two brain cells to rub together.
Come on, Wayne Staters, you can do better. How about reviving "impecunious," meaning "having little or no money," as in a titled but impecunious family?
These days we all could overuse that word.