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Strictly Speaking

Linguistic Lithmus Tests

So like not me

Here's an expression as common as dirty, and about as helpful to meaning. It is said with the hope that those hearing it will automatically know what it is that pleases or displeases the speaker. Knowing exactly what the problem is requires Spock's Vulvcan mind meld.

It would be vastly more communicative if the speaker simply said, "I've never liked chartreuse or sweet drinks, so why would I buy a type of Gatorade that is both?" The problem a speaker has can be more clearly known by the use of a number of words like crass, tasteless, insensitive, rude, inappropriate or grotesque. Something that gives listeners a fair chance at grasping the objection immediately and specifically, or at least getting close.

The most troubling aspect of the proliferation of expressions like "So like not me," is that it is definitively self-referential. It expects everyone else to accept that the speaker is ultimately more deserving of understanding and sympathy than anyone else. There is a DSM code for self-referential people. Their chief characteristic is that they cannot see the world from other than their own preferences.

Better by far might be, for example, "John and I just don't have the same taste in art." This allows John his preferences and the speaker hers, projecting a mature recognition that people can differ, and that the speaker's need to have all conduct and expression relate to their standards is ego-maniacal intolerance. Read More 
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means a brief summary of the plot of a novel. That's it. Only this in its original detonation. This gave the word a certain valence in publishing, where a professional could be gleaned from an amateur by understanding what, exactly, an editor was requesting.

In the stampede to achieve authority and conviction from ignorance, scenario has been gobbled up and regurgitated with such predictable regularity that it is now as obligatory as toilet paper, and often used for the same purpose.

Instead of plugging in scenario, one could just as well say, "Under this set of circumstances," and exhibit that he or she knew how to guide a discussion without resorting to shopworn buzzwords in pursuit of conformity. Read More 
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Unnecessary Redundancy


The verb to obviate means to eliminate the necessity of, followed by an object. And so the usage “obviate the necessity of” is redundant. More eloquent, compressed and exact is, “The watering moat obviated a fence; the cattle had no interest in drowning to reach greener pastures.”
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Increasingly is the word impactful on the lips of otherwise articulate people. Its adoption is characteristic of the rage to parrot others in order to capture their attention. Even by the spell checker in this blog, impactful is underlined in red, meaning either that it isn't a word, or I've misspelled it. The latter I have not, unfortunately.

The problem with this and other malignant neologisms is that we have no linguistic immune system to cleanse speech. Impactful is troubling not because it cannot possibly be a word, but because it lacks any thoughtful moral grounding.

Impactful might include the object that bashed into the early Earth, creating debris that became our moon. Impactful certainly described the asteroid that ended the dinosaurs, as it describes other asteroid impacts that brought similar mass extinctions. Impactful must by needs include the first nuclear weapon dropped on Hiroshima. Total thermonuclear war would certainly redefine impactfulness, if the derivative noun it the metastatic inevitability of the root adverb.

Owing to common usage, most of us are forced to conceded that we think we know what the speaker intends, but even so, a matter of "how" remains embedded in silence by the word itself. It fails by being incompletely intuitive, and the devil in the details of agreement is the cognitive equivalent of seven blind men and a neological elephant. Read More 
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Agreement in Number

IS ( + plural noun)

Structured language has evolved with mathematical underpinnings. Its parts of speech correlated to mathematical signs and equations. Used correctly, any communicative sentence is assembled in a self-checking way, like DNA encoding for synthesizing unique proteins, and for only those proteins required.

Current usage has become so casual that its mathematical checking program has collapsed. One of the most common and illustrative examples of this is the connection of the present tense singular of the verb to be (‘is”) with a plural noun. In contraction this might me “There’s some trees down the road.”

Problem: the singular “is” and plural “trees” are not in agreement in number. Correct would be “There are some trees down the road,” or “Trees are down the road a bit.” Technically the failure is in agreement in number between the subject and verb.

Correct language always provides certainty that an intended meaning is spoken or written by allowing the listener or reader to hear or see that singular subjects agree with singular forms of verbs, and plural subjects agree with plural forms of verbs.

If singular is preferred, it is handy to know that the trees may be clumped into groves, copses, lines, woods and forests. Singular predication is possible here, because these collective units are unitary. So "There's a grove of trees beyond the ridge," works.

In its requirements for agreement, English is both undemanding and informative but not tyrannical. Romance languages require agreement in number and gender between subject and predicate.

Rarely but occasionally English nouns have genders, but usually they are traditional and vanishing. For example, a ship was historically referred to as she. So, “She went down with all men aboard,” was not read, as in modern times is might be, “And a promiscuous woman she no doubt was.” Read More 
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At a Loss for Words


Incredible belongs in close association with the other words in tribal noise that banish silence at the expense of creating meaning. In no less than an NPR interview, where one might hope for information to be valued, the word “incredible” was spoken not fewer than eight times inside two and one half minutes, by both the host and guest. Whether or not they understood it, the word that had made their voices skip like a scratch on an old vinyl record means, “not credible, or difficult to believe.”

Now, since the purpose of the interview was, ostensibly at least, to communicate an experience that did happen, was witnessed and did, presumably, have reality, and, ergo, credibility, the repeated used of incredible was reduced to – at best – an interjection.

And there’s the rub.

An interjection is no more effective in communication than a stutter. At the bottom of the box of lazy, rapid, unconsidered speech, tribal noise provides and number of reliable “go to” options, words that have become interchangeable in usage, but on examination seem like fragments from the gibberish of “an idiot, signifying nothing.”

The sad reality of having only “amazing, awesome and incredible” to describe events that a larger vocabulary would make specific and memorable is that, of all languages, one of the strengths of English is the availability of exactly the right word or phrase. But in terms of conventional contemporary response, the effect of chanting one of the currently popular Cracker Jack treats is to get the tribe’s heads nodding, invoking, “Yeah, I know what you mean,” when it is far from clear – when the words are considered – what they can mean.  Read More 
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Like: The Universal Interjection

I’M LIKE (+ e.g. ‘How can you say that?’)

Here’s a commonly occurring fragment of tribal noise that has added a socially obligatory but linguistically cumbersome predecessor to so many communications that could easily and elegantly do without it.

The traditional linguistic form that it seems to pursue is a simile, a comparison using the words “like” or “as.” In, “When I’m with my bong pipe I’m like an eagle, flying high.” But in the too commonly overheard intro, the expression simply provides an opportunity for the interjection of the word “like” that, on examination, might provide a useful a silence, a time for brief reflection before speaking.

But these days when a speaker pauses, it merely provides an opportunity for someone else to interrupt. And so the articulation of the useless “like” reserves the permission to continue once the slow-moving mind has stumbled onto something more useful for addressing its needs.

The process of converging nearer to the answer with each iteration is known in mathematics and successive approximations. A better indicator of both analytical thinking and power of expression is to get it right the first time. Le mot juste, as it were.

As contemporary speech is almost entirely free of similes, unless the word “like” is used as a verb, it is almost always a needless interjection, a junk word. An example, par excellence, sine qua non, ne plus ultra of tribal noise. People use it because it is in common use, without fear that they, themselves, become more common by using it. The economy in using like is that it never requires thinking before speaking, of lining up the words most suited to expression in the most elegant form before the first sound comes from your lips.

Alternatively, instead of blurting, “I’m like ‘how you say that?’” in confidence, to a third party, better by far, more direct and economical, is “I’m still baffled how he could say that.” Another corrosion to thoughtful speech that is stimulated by what I call yabber.

Yabber is a neologism invoked to describe a response that fails to stimulate true thinking, but serves both to express an apparent agreement and, worse, to encourage a predictable descent into tribal noise.  Read More 
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Tribal Noise? Definitely


Here’s yet another perfectly serviceable word that has, by common usage, descended into a meaning and subtext unsupported etymologically or logically. Consider an example. Four people, separated into two groups of two, sit in coffee shops of antipodal (it’s a perfectly good word, so far uneroded by overuse; look it up, or see antipodal, previously) political alignment. In the separated groups, two of the speakers reach opposite conclusions, but in both cases their partners respond with the word, “Definitely.”

They apply the word in the sense now intended, which is “I agree emphatically.” But if the separate conversations have reached opposite conclusions and the speakers are seeking a valid, unassailable position, their opposing conclusions cannot be validly received with the word “definitely.”

To be definite, a composition, material, or even argument, needs to provide a defining situation, usually after long and sometimes sharp exchanges, and must define something according to broadly agreed-upon standards that often demand precise measurements by fundamentally different methods. More is required than just agreement among a certain set of minds that regard themselves as in. Prior to his exposure as a fraud and criminal, all of Bernie Madoff’s investors agreed that he was “definitely” the go-to guy for their money, the kind of guy whose shrewdness was a slam dunk, the kind of guy who definitely knew where the secret mother lode of profit lay.

Among individuals who behave and believe by simple wish-fulfillment that what they desire becomes true, “definitely” and “I agree” become a strange perceptual fusion equivalent to “no sane person could disagree because I could never handle the resulting uncertainty.” Bringing us back, along a long and tortured path, to the inextricable inevitability of the fabric of the physical universe with uncertainty, the awareness that even the revolutionary Einsteinian universe (a mere century) old is now a minority player in the cosmos as a whole, and that the only certainty that we definitely know is that the more we discover, the less comfortable is eventual truth with the present use of “definitely.” QED. But not entirely definitely. Read More 
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Impact Lost to Hyperbole


Synonymous with Michael Phelps? Before you react “absolutely,” read the section on “absolutely.” Ditto “definitely.” This one word response to a question by a sports commentator or music show emcee has become the unacknowledged poster child word of the information age, embodying all the yearnings of broadcast moguls. It is short, uttered enthusiastically and is commonly taken by the audience as representing a fulfillment of their deepest expectations. Check it out.

Awesome is here, and there, and everywhere you look. The word for that condition is ubiquitous. Awesome has achieved that rare quality of being both insuperable in experience and available everywhere by its simple virtue of spontaneous declaration and bilateral agreement. The word itself is current and user-friendly.

Once awesome was a liturgical word used cautiously along with a mixture of other words, like ineffable or transcendent, not interchangeably but to add texture and nuance to expression. In those days, awesome was weighed in consideration before use. Its meaning, according to a source as current and universally available as Google dictionary, is “very impressive and often frightening.”

Perhaps when Michael Phelps speaks of his own performances in myriad swimming events, this is what he means. But as he also deems as awesome certain pop music tracks by Eminem, application of the word “awesome” seems less likely. Or not. But if not, it is because a great deal of thought and cleverness has been done by Michael Phelps before declaring for both his world record in the one hundred meter butterfly and what might in a previous age been a vinyl record the same status as conferred by the definition.

Phelps’s use of awesome would be with an intention to provoke the audience to deeper levels of connection and meaning. It is not clear that the storied icon of swimming has devoted this much cogitation to his choice of the word. It is no more clear than when other sports or entertainment heroes give voice to the word that they have considered and discarded other choices like tremendous, fantastic, indescribable (sometimes connoted by awesome), ineffable, superb, magnificent, splendid, or any of a number of words less familiar, equally short, but certainly more distinguishing.

In fairness the pandemic spread in the use of awesome is simply our postmodern contribution to similar expostulations from former era, for example “peachy keen.” The phenomenon of grabbing a word from a familiar use and conferring upon it by diversion to new purposes (a kind of linguistic highjacking), there is by growing agreement – the same kind that arrayed the emperor in his wonderful clothes – a snobbish conspiracy that anyone who is anyone nowadays digs what we mean when we say “awesome.” But caution needs to be applied to a progression of radical conscription where use creates lexicographic dissonance.

For example, while “cool” has been around longer than “awesome,” it is generally contrasted to awesome by its understatement. “Cool” has be in and out of fashion, and is currently in, but if you check with next year’s list of what’s hot and not, may be out again. Yet in a great thermodynamic conundrum, an individual (usually but not in this PC age exclusively of the opposite sex) may simultaneously be “cool” and “hot.”

Here’s the rub, of hands together to produce heat: By their definitions “cool” and “hot” are near opposites. There is no system of logic, mathematical or symbolic, that allows identities to be opposites without nullifying the proof and destroying the meaning. And attempting to rescue the situation with a groan and, “Well, you know everybody understand what is means,” brings us back to that wonderful riposte by Scarlet Johanssen is the film Lost in Translation.”

Here’s how it plays out. Enlisting a barrage of babble, a film maker presses Johanssen with a rhetorical, “You know what I mean?” and she answers, quite honestly, unblinkingly and refreshingly, “No, I don’t. I have no idea what you’re saying.”

If the intention of words is to provide specific and precise relationships to meanings, even if it is a rather long list of meanings, then if communication is the attempt to embed either reasoning or emotion in sound, then – contrary to the convention of the annual reconsideration of meanings according to usage that was first popularized by the Webster’s Third International Dictionary in 1960 – the range of possible meanings needs to be constrained by the definitions. But the problem with the use of “awesome” is that it destroys by overuse the power of a word that once had a rather great lifting power.

Mindless, reflexive repetition by Pavolovian stimuli not only slakes the awe from awesome, but leaves a dead sound that has become tiresome, shopworn, threadbare and clichéd. In a media like television that abhors dead air, the air is pre-deadened whenever the word “awesome” is spoken. It died not only of overuse but by predictability.

It is the sound of one hand clapping. It is all noise and no impact. And what then, is preferable? What would keep me from leaving the televison set to fetch a beer during the post-race interview? If after the anchor swimmer has ripped his suit and is asked, “So how do you feel about the new world record?” he had enough wit to quip, “The other guys gave me a great lead. I’m just glad I could keep the competition behind me.”

Get it? Behind me, as in behind. Ripped suit.

The point: you can be simple and understood, sincere and humble, and still witty in subtext, but not if all you can think when the mike is jammed under your nose is, “It was awesome.”

It would be more emotionally honest and no less meaningful to simply emit a barbaric yawp. This poetic license is extended by no lesser a bard than Walk Whitman. When there is no word that embraces the momentary feelings, don’t try to find one. It simply diminishes the emotion. Sometimes a tear, a sniffle and a smile is more eloquent, spontaneous and – yes – meaningful, than any spoken word.

Awesome has been devalued by overuse to less than zero. It cannot be resurrected or reinstated by capitalization or exclamation marks ad infinitum. No longer a word of meaning, it has been degraded to a vocal reflex, a conversational knee-jerk Read More 
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