Monday, March 26, 2012

Words You Need to Test-Drive

Some months ago, I created an international stir with a little piece I wrote called "Please Put These Words in Mothballs" (click HERE or here or even hear to read it). It was an innocent little blog about  words and phrases that had been over-used by the lazy, unimaginative general public. It was written in response to an untrackable email that I received from a self-described all-powerful yet anonymous group (I'm guessing Opus Dei), requesting that I use my influence with the unwashed masses to try to eradicate several terms from daily speech.

So I wrote the above-linked blog, because I didn't want any trouble with those fun fraternal groups - our Elks Club has a nice pool, you know? Anyway, my heartfelt plea to accomplish this serious mission fell on deaf ears. The unwashed masses weren't listening.  The unwashed masses stubbornly refused to consign the worn out terms "awesome" and "dude" to the linguistic junk heap. My nine devoted readers did what they could, but clearly our little grassroots effort to change the world didn't make it past the next click of the mouse. The world wasn't ready for our message.

It occurred to me that the world may not ever be ready for any message that tells them to "STOP" doing something. Whether you tell the world to stop saying "awesome" or stop smoking crack or stop buying a new IPhone every 5 minutes, the world generally tells you to mind your own business. So I did. For awhile.

But this idea of bossing around the world was kind of fun. Even if the world looks over its shoulder and says (in a snarky tone): "You're not the boss of me!" it's still a power trip to come up with new ways to be the boss of the world. I prepared a list of demands, starting with the immediate end to all wars and an international statute outlawing the consumption of Happy Meals by adults. Then, while my demands were being reviewed at The Hague, I realized that enforcement may be a problem. I don't really want to have to monitor 7 billion people to make sure only young children are eating those formed chicken things in a box. And I hate wars, but they seem to be a constant in the human condition, and even using Google Earth and CNN, it would be hard for me to ever be sure that a worldwide ceasefire was being maintained.

 All I really want the world to do is learn to describe good or positive or enormous events or items or people with some word besides "awesome." But since I found myself using that word for no good reason today (Eric: "Did you hear that Dick Cheney had a heart transplant?" Me: "Awesome!"), I must conclude that this is not the battle I was born to fight. It is simply not my destiny to drive "awesome" from the vernacular.

No, telling people to stop doing something is a dead end. So perhaps it works the other way around. Maybe if I offer a list of words that should be added to everyone's list, and politely suggest that I demand that the world start using these words, that would work better. Today, I intend to give that method a try.


I want to start with a great word used by my friend "Mindy"* the other day. We were playing Bananagrams in the morning sun, and she popped this one out:  NINNY. A ninny is a fool or a dim-witted person. Wouldn't it be lovely if we could convince our kids to quit using "stupid" or "butthead?" (when I say our kids I am obviously referring to your sass-mouth kids). Anyway, ninny has connotations of applying to girls, but its original meaning derived from "innocence," so I think it makes a great all-purpose term describing a person who does not meet your particular standards of intelligence.  Try it out - it's fun to say!

Sample sentence: "Penelope felt like a complete ninny for screaming at the sight of a plastic roach in her underwear drawer."

Another word I think should get more linguistic traffic is GIRD. When you gird something, you fortify or buttress a thing by encircling it, like a wall around a castle. Next time you are tempted to say "reinforce" or "build up: or "support," try using gird instead. And if you want to encircle your body with something supportive, look for a "girdle."

Sample sentence: "Mrs. Greenslipper always girds the area around her prize tulip shoots with high-voltage electrical fencing and rat poison, to keep out the rabbits."

(Author's note: Since I began writing this installment, a Republican operative used "gird" in a talking points memo, describing how the GOP is "girding for a brokered convention." Now if you search "republican gird convention" there are almost 2 million hits, 1.95 million of which appeared in print beginning the day after Super Tuesday. I respectfully retract my request that it get more "liguistic traffic.")


Here's one I've always loved to say: CANTILEVERED. There really aren't that many opportunities to use this word - you have to go looking for them. I usually toss it out when discussing floor registers and fireplace grates.  Bust to be sure, I checked to make sure I understood the term, and discovered I was using it wrong. So look it up, and if you are ever on a construction site or involved with aircraft engineering, say "cantilevered" as often as you can, since the rest of us won't get the chance.

Sample sentence: Cantilevers are important structures in the design of bridges and cranes.

Wait! Hold the presses! I googled an image of "cantilever" and found something we can all recognize:

The way the vertical support extends quite far from the horizontal member it's attached to makes that piece "cantilevered. So the next time you go to someone's house with one of these nifty umbrellas, you can try out this sample sentence: "I'm amazed how the weighted bottom allows the cantilevered arm to support the suspended umbrella." How's that for some lively cocktail party chatter?


I'm nearly out of ideas and I'm definitely out of time, so I'll just offer one more word you may want to test-drive in the future: DAUNTING. Simply put, something daunting is frightening - not like a horror movie, but like a difficult or confusing task or challenge. I like daunting because it allows one to sound involved in something worthwhile, when that may not be the case. "I have some rather daunting work to do today," sounds like you are training for a marathon or looking for the Higgs bosun; I use it as a rather grand way to describe pulling weeds or scrubbing porcelain bowls. 


I've decided that my next foray into language appreciation will be a spin-off of the popular diet book that tells you what healthy foods to eat in place of all the good-tasting junk. It's called Eat This, Not That, or something close to those words. I'd know if I had read it. (Okay, here's a link.) But I'm more interested in substituting good words for bad, overused or misused words, than I am in finding dietary alternatives to a DQ Blizzard (scientists have already proven there is no comparable substance in the universe).  My rip-off of the highly popular book will be a blog entry entitled "Say This, Not That." It won't be as vague as it sounds, and it will contain profanity, copyright-infringed photos, bombastic phraseology and, possibly, a chart. If that doesn't make you want to subscribe by RSS or email, I can't imagine what will.

*Not her real name. Her real name is Melinda.

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