Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Tuesday's Term-Turnaround

Did you ever see Tuesday on the calendar and think, "what a useless day!" Tuesday gets the short shrift in the heirarchy of days. It's not manic, it's not a hump, no one ever thanks God it's Tuesday. If Tuesday was one of Snow White's dwarfs, it would be Sneezy. (ADD moment - why are they not dwarves?)

I decided to rectify this neglectful attitude with an exciting new weekly entry called Tuesday's Term Turnaround. With such a cumbersome name, it's bound to be a very short-lived tradition, but I'm going to try it out and see what happens.

The idea is that there so are many words and terms in common usage that have practically lost their impact, often because of overuse, that perhaps a vocabulary tune-up is in order.

This week's entries are: hate (v.), job (n.),  literally (adv.), hot (adj.) and bitch (v.).

Let's leave the naughtiest ones for last, if you don't mind.  And if you have to ask which one I mean, you are way too young to be reading this column in the first place.

In the course of a normal day, I have heard people remarking that they "hate" the following:
pollen, high heels, Daylight Saving Time, driving, T-ball, the season premiere of "Mad Men," chlorine, Rick Santorum, spreading mulch, buying gasoline, Duke's basketball team and getting the lawnmower out of storage.

While it is possible to understand a feeling of dislike associated with any one of these entries, no one item on the list seems to rise to the level of engendering hatred.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines hate thusly: 

a. v. trans. To hold in very strong dislike; to detest; to bear malice to. The opposite of to love.
As an transitive verb, hate needs a direct object. All those items in the list theoretically receive hate from the hater. Doesn't it seem that most of those people, things, events and tasks could benefit from a more precise description of the emotion being experienced? Shouldn't intelligent people save the term "hate" for the direst circumstances, the most awful objects?

I'd like to propose some synonyms, a few of which I only just learned while researching for this blog. Here are a few you might like to try, with substitution examples:

No: I hate high heels.
Acceptable: I dislike wearing high heels.
Very specific: I love how high heels make my legs look, but I dislike how they treat my feet.

No: I hate pollen.
Acceptable: Pollen irritates my allergies.
Verbal gymnastics: I experience intense loathing for the microscopic particles which produce the profusion of spring flowers, because they trigger an allergic reaction which causes me to call in sick for April.

No: I hate buying gasoline.
Acceptable: The price of gasoline makes me upset.
Best in show: I bear extreme malice toward the rich speculators and/or greedy corporations responsible for the exorbitant cost of gasoline.

See how easy it is to re-route your thinking and find appropriate, precise words to help you make your point? And if you want to throw in a little Austenesque phraseology, try this:

"I am ill-disposed to accept my doctor's recommendation that I refrain from consuming Blizzards."

On a side note, I found some nice synonyms for "hateful," a word I probably rely on too much and use too loosely. I think it's a southern thing. Next time I want to describe someone who criticizes my dogs or makes fun of my sewing, instead of calling them hateful, I'll use "mordacious," which means biting or severe. I can hardly wait to be insulted so I can fling out my new harsh word. Mordacious. I like the sound of that.

In this era of high unemployment, everyone within spitting distance of a microphone talks about jobs. But the word "job" is so vague. People who are unemployed lack a paying job, but there are many other definitions of "job" that refer to unpaid employment. Synonyms for job include activity, assignment, career, chore, engagement, livelihood, occupation, position, profession, vocation and work.  This incomplete list demonstrates that there should be no problem finding other word choices. Let's try a little replacement exercise. A friend recently made this remark:

"The first job on my to-do list today is to get a haircut and a manicure."

In this sentence, the word job implies work, but the events listed hardly qualify.  (There is also the issue of singular job and multiple treatments, but I digress.) Perhaps a more accurate sentence would read:

"My first activity of the day is to go to the salon and have a mani/pedi. I only mention it because your ragged cuticles and split ends reminded me that I am overdue for some pampering."

See how much more precise and descriptive that sounds? A well-to-do person who does not need to earn a living by holding down a job should use the word sparingly. Now I'll pull a quote from the news:

"If elected, I'll single-handedly create more jobs than all the presidents going back to Millard Fillmore - combined!"

A better alternative to this typically empty campaign promise would read:

"If elected, I'll provide many new career choices in my cabinet for entrenched lawmakers and lobbyists, make huge changes to the Labor Department resulting in re-categorizing the entire national professional index to disguise the fact that the same number of workers have new titles for their vocations, and by repealing every unpopular law enacted in the past 100 years, I'll create millions of entry-level paper shredder positions!"

Here's a short list of available synonyms :   task, work, business, undertaking, vocation, chore, duty, assignment.

Teachers give assignments; parent assign chores; daily life includes tasks; you can have a position as a volunteer, you can earn a living by having a career or a profession. Not all jobs are work, and not all work is a job. I write almost every day because I task myself to do so. I don't earn any money, I don't have an employer and I don't write to put food on the table. I write as an "occupation," because it occupies my time and I do it for reasons of self-satisfaction. I also keep house and am a wife and mother. In that sense, I work all the time, but I still don't have a "job." Do you agree?

Note to self: Write a blog about the most useless parenting phrase of all: "Good job!"


This term is literally the most misused  word in the English language. Okay, not really. And very few occasions in everyday life warrant the usage of "literally." In fact, you could add another overused word to describe the overuse of "literally:" the word "literally" is "abused" in common speech. 

That's because the word literally refers to precision, accuracy and exactness. It should never be used to describe things that didn't happen, but it usually is used that way. The word is intended to precede a true statement; the translated meaning is "with truth to the letter." But most people, myself included, use "literally" as a term of emphasis or exaggeration. Let's look at some real-life examples and some alternatives:

"I literally died when he offered me a piece of gum at the bus stop."
"I nearly lost control of my bladder and my saliva when he offered me a piece of gum at the bus stop."

"That book was literally the most boring book in the history of the world."
"I fell asleep on page two and didn't wake up until I saw the words 'The End.'"

"I literally only had yogurt and water for a week but I gained literally about 20 pounds."
"No one saw me eat anything but yogurt or water all week, but the scale knows the ugly truth."

"That was the hardest exercise class I've ever been to; I literally can't move an inch. Want to go to Target?"
"Before the soreness sets in, let's engage in retail therapy while I tell you about all the amazing and difficult calorie-burning activities I did while you sat home blogging."

"Peyton Manning literally broke a billion hearts when he signed with the Broncos."
"I hate the Colts."

I hope these examples demonstrate my point. We should all reserve "literally" for statements which involve facts, truth and exactness, and avoid using it to convey an extreme emotion or exaggerate the impact of an event. If everyone would literally just completely stop saying literally, I think the world would be a better place in, like, literally, five minutes.


The overuse and misuse of "hot" is nothing new; "hot" has been used to describe a good-looking person, a high-performance car and popular new TV shows for many years. Although the primary dictionary definition pertains to temperature, it seems to rarely be used for that measure; instead, it is usually invoked to describe the attractiveness or desirability of a person or thing. When I was growing up, however, mere mortals weren't referred to as "hot." The term was reserved for the likes of Sophia Loren and Elvis Presley, people who oozed sex appeal without any effort. Now it is commonplace to hear a 5th grade girl refer to a 5th grade boy as hot (especially if he has a Justin Bieber haircut). I found this trend disturbing when I heard my own child call a boy hot, but like so many words, the meaning has been diluted to the point where calling a person "hot" is just another way of saying they aren't ugly.

I think that we must experience some kind of psychological safety when using short, amorphous words to describe things we actually like. It's easier to call a guy "hot" than to say you like the way he wears his hair or the thoughtful comments he makes in English class. Sometimes the finer points of why we like something are difficult to articulate, like the integrated bumper or mosaic-like taillights of a "hot" Jaguar convertible. But then there's the sexiness component of "hot," where a person can obliquely refer to experiencing strong physical attraction to someone. It make the word take on entirely too many mature connotations for such common, flippant use. 

Let's deconstruct "hot:"

hot - a temperature measurement. Correct uses: An outdoor temperature of 98F can be called "a hot day." If you stick your finger in a flame, your finger will experience the sensation of uncomfortable heat, therefore, "the fire is hot." Incorrect use: "I'm wearing this sweater skiiing, because that ugly coat you bought is too hot." 

hot - a measure of attractiveness. Common use: "The fact remains, Edward sparkles and emotes with deep intensity, but he's nowhere near as hot as a shirtless Jacob." Correct use: "Sean Connery looks hot at every age."  Excepting 007, substitute the following words for "hot" to describe a pleasant appearance: 
attractive, handsome, pretty, alluring, pleasing, good-looking, magnetic, fetching, agreeable, winning, beefcake and hunky.

hot - as in "new and popular:: Common use: "The hot-selling IPhone 12 is pre-loaded with a rocket launcher and can microwave a Hot Pocket with the screen.." Plenty of synonyms are available at thesaurus.com, such as: 
approvedcool*, dandyfavoredfreshgloriousgroovy*, in demand, just out, keenlatestmarvelousneat*, nifty*, peachy*, popularrecentsought-after, supertrendyup-to-the-minute.

hot - denoting a strong feeling of physical attraction for another: Correct use: "Mr. Darcy was clearly hot for Elizabeth, but managed to hide that fact until their wedding night." Incorrect use: Almost anything else.  No one under 25 should use "hot" in this way. Furthermore, this feeling should not be discussed in polite conversation. If you cannot restrain yourself from sharing this sensation with others, substitute the word "concupiscent." It is awkward, doesn't roll off the tongue easily like "hot," and it may take you a minute to think of it. Once you do, perhaps you will also reconsider openly discussing such private feelings in the first place. Example: "The vision of Isolde bathing in the pond rendered Tristan concupiscent." If everyone would just adopt this minor change, perhaps some of us would be spared the unpleasant mental pictures resulting from standing next to chatty teenage boys in line at the video store.

Acceptable alternatives, in an emergency: 
lascivious, libidinous, prurient and concupiscent (if you dare).


It is hard to believe the stir that was caused by Elton John's song "The Bitch is Back," released in the distant, innocent year of 1974. The radio station I listened to banned it, because the word "bitch" simply wasn't considered an acceptable term for public airwaves. Nowadays, the word has no shame value - anyone can say it to anyone else for any reason. Recently, I heard a mother at the grocery storewith a whiny child of about 3 yell, "Quit your bitchin'" in full hearing of anyone in the produce section. I think it is regrettable that a word which should truly be reserved for dog breeders has achieved such popularity and acceptance in everyday speech.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that "bitch" has developed many meanings, and functions as both a noun and a verb; people find it a very useful crutch in their vocabulary. But in researching the term, I discovered that there are many satisfying alternatives, if people would just take a minute to memorize a new word or two.  For example:

"Bitch" as a measure of difficulty:
"That test was a bitch."
"That test was arduous and challenging. I wish I'd studied more."

"Bitch" as a derogatory description of a person:
"My Body Pump teacher is a bitch."
"My Body Pump teacher is an imposing lady with a formidable teaching style."

"Bitch" as a verb, as in nag:
"Why do you bitch every Sunday when I'm trying to keep up with 12 games at one time?"
"Why do you complain as if football was not the single most important thing about the weekend?"

For the more liguistically ambitious, I have a few more synonyms you should try:

virago: an aggressive woman.
calumniator: a person who accuses, smears, defames or slanders.
termagant: troublemaker.

Every campaign needs a logo

I hope today's installment will help you, in some small way, avoid banausic  (common, ordinary, undistinguished) words and will enable you to replace lazy, hackneyed (cliched, timeworn, quotidian) terms with ones that are precise, descriptive and suited to your intention. (Do you think I should enter the previous sentence in the Parenthetical, Comma-Spliced, Run-On Sentence Hall of Fame?)

Perhaps the next time you see Kim Kardashian, instead of saying:
"I hate that stupid show, but that bitch is like, literally, hot,"

you will be inspired to politely remark:
"I intensely dislike her insipid program, but that harridan, Kim Kardashian, is admittedly a fetching young lady."

At long last, this concludes my first installment of Tuesday's Term-Turnaround. I had fun with this piece, but want to apologize if any of my more polite readers were offended by the indelicate language. If there is a next time, I'll try to be more delicate. Which isn't going to be easy, because the nest term-turnaround I want to tackle is "freaking." 

In the meantime, feel free to comment or email with your suggestions for words or phrases that need to be clarified, redefined or retired. I welcome your awesome feedback on this hot topic!

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