Words What Bug Me

Language is fascinating. Some say it’s what sets us humans apart from all other life on Earth, although Koko the Gorilla might disagree. Whether that is true or not, language can be ugly, convey love, and bring a smile to one’s face or a tear to one’s eye.

I’m a big fan of the English language, in spite of being guilty of butchering and abusing it on a regular basis (so I figured I’d start with the butchering right off the bat in the title). One of its most wondrous properties is that it evolves and expands to allow us to continue to communicate our experiences in our increasingly complex world. I’ve noticed that along with ways to express new things and exciting new ways to describe things or situations that have lacklustre words associated with them, stupid new words and annoying new uses for old words have found their way into common usage as part of English’s “growth”.

Before you call me an old-fashioned stick in the mud, I like some “new” words, like “kickin’ ” (meaning wonderful or exciting), “extreme” (meaning exiting or dangerous), and “to hook up with” (meaning to meet or get together with). “Harsh” is not a new word, but over the past few years it has enjoyed a revival and I’m all for it.

Because I’m in my 50s and expressions such as these were contributed by those much younger than I, me using these new words sounds about as out of place as if I were to use their 1970s equivalents, “groovy”, “wild”, and “hang with”. Linguistic anachronisms aside, every once in a while new words rear their ugly little heads and replace perfectly good combinations of letters. Sometimes the new words amount to being “less” than the words they replace. Sometimes there is no net aesthetic or semantic gain or loss, but the change is made to advance the interests of some special interest group. Sometimes the new word is actually “less” than the word it replaces but is imposed upon us for the sake of a select group’s idea of propriety. Here are a few changes to the language that I feel are the most egregious offenders.

Actor

Ernest Borgnine and Julia Roberts are both actors, but it’s my guess that they use separate communal shower rooms after playing a big game for the Hollywood softball team. One is male, the other female, and there used to be separate words for male and female professional pretenders… “actor” and “actress”. What happened to the feminine version? Does dropping the word actress really help bring about equality between the sexes?

Let’s get something straight… men and women are not the same. But I’m nothing if I’m not flexible — I’m willing to reverse myself and call actresses “actors” when a remake of Pretty Woman grosses over $400 million, even unadjusted for inflation, with Borgnine in the role of Vivian Ward. Likewise, Julia Roberts would have a tough time pulling off the role of Marty, a fat, lonely pork butcher.

Why would anyone think that there is something to be gained by abandoning a feminine form of a word? If this was a move by someone with feminist intentions, you’d figure that they would have thought twice and taken pride in a word that is reserved for women only. I mean, is there something wrong with being a woman? Is someone trying to camouflage the fact that they’re a woman? Are they ashamed of being a woman? And why is it that such gender shifts always seem to default to the masculine form of the word? Is the masculine form better? The dropping of the morpheme “ess” does not neutralize the word, it just assigns the masculine form for use to describe women. Does anyone believe that such gender shifts make a sparrow’s fart of difference in terms of promoting equality of pay or opportunity? It just seems so silly to me.

Administrative Assistant

Somewhere along the line “Secretary” became a bad word and was replaced by Administrative Assistant. What did this accomplish? The word secretary, more or less, means “the keeper of secrets”. We went from saying that a person could be trusted with an executive’s secrets and has a job that is largely independent of the person to whom they were assigned to “someone who merely assists someone else who has the real job”. Seems like a demotion to me. And not all women seem to feel that “secretary” is an inherently bad word — I cannot remember reading anything in the news about U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton trying to have her title changed to Administrative Assistant of State.

Associate

Nowadays every entry-level wage earner is an Associate. Gone are such titles as Cashier, Greeter, Salesman, and Stock Boy so now the nebulously-named Associates can be called upon to carry out a myriad of tasks at their employers’ whim because a job description is no longer implicit in their job title.

Why did this go unnoticed? Because in the old days, there were companies called something like “Mr. So-and-so and Associates” where Mr. So-and-so was the top dog in the company and the Associates were the people who sat on the Board of Directors, had major non-controlling shares in the company, or were the major brains of the operation. I don’t think that when companies include the words “and Associates” in their name they are referring to the guys who empty the wastebaskets or work in the mail room. Giving general staff the title Associate is just throwing them a bone, trying to make them feel more important than calling them something like General Labourer.

Baby-Daddy and Baby-Mama

Outside of conversations between close friends sitting together on the front steps of an apartment building in the projects and drinking malt liquor out of a brown paper bag, there is no place for this expression in the civilized world. Meaning “my child’s other parent”, those who utter this phrase seem to be trying to distance themselves from the other contributor to their child’s DNA. We all see through this tactic and wonder how soon they’ll be trying to deny responsibility for their child, too. While there is no concise equivalent in Standard English for baby-daddy/momma, “my child’s father/mother” works just fine and won’t make you sound like a Jerry Springer Show alumnus.

Chinaman, Englishman, and Other Ethnic Types

Just why is it OK to call your friend from London an Englishman but you’re some kind of racist if you call a guy from Hong Kong a Chinaman? There must be a panel somewhere that dictates which arrangement of letters are slurs independent of the speaker’s intent. The problem with this panel is that they change the rules arbitrarily but never mail out an official update list.

First of all, if we are going to agree that any language must include words to describe people, then we must accept that groups of people share a common label, otherwise we would need 7 billion words (and counting) to avoid lumping people together into sometimes poorly defined categories. So labelling people according to their age, sex, nationality, and how they look becomes a necessary evil, but agreeing on universally acceptable words for a person’s race or nationality has recently become a particularly tricky task.

If we look at the words we’ve used over the decades for the people the politically correct now refer to as African-Americans, we can see how arbitrarily the bar is raised and lowered. An African-American, by definition, resides in The United States or is a citizen of that country. Their sibling might live next door to me and would therefore be an African-Canadian. Same parents, same race, different places of residence, different words — this convention doesn’t seem to satisfy the need  for a word to objectively describe the person’s race.

A long time ago, “Black” replaced “Coloured”. “Coloured” implies that at least one other race has no colour and, perhaps, suggested that the uncoloured ones were standard and everyone else are collectively different so I can understand this word falling from grace.

When I was young, the words Negro and Black were used much as we use African-American and African-Canadian today. The latter was used in informal speech while the former had more of a scientific flavour to it. While both mean “black”, neither seemed to me to carry bias or other baggage — they were simply words that the PC Committee eventually saw fit to label as nasty. I don’t know how Black Entertainment Television has gotten away with their name for so long but “Black” seems not only acceptable to people of the African-[place a nationality here] persuasion themselves, it’s concise, and relatively neutral. I wish they’d bring these words back… we’d save a lot of confusion and ink!

For the aboriginal peoples of North America, we used to use the words Indian and Eskimo. Now, it’s First Nations and Inuit. What happened? According to Wikipedia, the word “Eskimo” could have come from indigenous peoples’ words for  “snowshoe-netter”, “people who speak a different language”, or “eaters of raw meat”. It’s the last meaning that made “Eskimo” be considered derogatory here in Canada. On a personal note, I used to have an Inuit friend who was kind enough to share with me some of what she considered comfort food from home. It is called “muktuk”, which is raw whale skin and blubber, and was as comforting to her as pastitsio or a Harvey’s hamburger is to me. So for at least some Inuit, they really do eat and enjoy raw whale blubber, so why would this term be seen as derogatory especially if no malice is intended? Unfortunately, I didn’t think to ask Miss Tookalook (her real family name) if she found the word “Eskimo” offensive.

Just one more case in point… Asians are thriving but Orientals seem to be an endangered species. I think we can all agree that an Asian is someone from Asia and my made-in-Korea wife has no problem with the word Oriental (which just refers to where the sun rises, from a European perspective). I think it’s pretty clear that an Asian is someone from Asia and an Oriental is a subset thereof defined by their Mongolian lineage and their ability to eat noodle soup with chopsticks without ruining their clothes or catapulting a shrimp across the table. Lighten up!

OK, just one last thing… honourable mention goes to the Monty Python gang for coming up with a phrase for people of the Jewish faith [I'm not sure if it's OK for a guy baptized in a ceremony involving a large golden pot, myrrh, and olive oil to call them "Jews"]… “Red Sea Pedestrians”!

Conversating

Sorry, this is non-standard English and generally unacceptable. I think what you mean is “conversing”.

Disrespect

Disrespect? As a verb? I know that dictionaries list this as a legal part of speech for this word but it covers a lot of ground. Why not just say insulted, cheated (on), ignored, stood someone up, etc? Generally people who say things like “He disrespected me” have an inflated view of their own importance and feel that they should be treated like royalty for no apparent reason.

Female

Meaning “an organism that does not have a Y chromosome”, “female” covers a lot of territory. When someone asks you what gender your gerbil is, I have no trouble with you responding “Female!”. But if you are talking about female people, say “woman” or “girl”. This is another very urban assault on English and could be part of a Questionable English Grand Slam such as “My baby-mama thought I was disrespecting her when she saw me conversating with another female.”

Should anyone ever say something to you like “I was walking down the street and a female struck up a conversation with me”, I suggest you reply, “No kidding? A female what? A female parrot, a female goat, a female hornet… ?”. I know I will.

Flight Attendant

Jeez, here’s another one of those job titles that got shoehorned into the public lexicon because the words it replaced gave clues as to the worker’s gender. When I think of the word steward (and the word “stewardess” meant nothing more to me than “a female steward”), I think about the golden age of ocean liners, sitting on a steamer chair, and being served hot bouillon by a steward. Either that or I think of my waiter (Oops! Sorry, I mean “server“) having to check if the vintage I’d like to imbibe is in stock so he consults with the restaurant’s resident wine expert, the wine steward. Tragically, Baby Duck is getting harder to find at the finer establishments and they now tend to stock that imported stuff.

On the other hand, what do I associate with people whose job title includes the word “attendant”? The only vocation that springs to mind is “Bathroom Attendant”. Again, I think the language got a little bit closer to its best-before date when we changed over to this PC (Porcelain Commode?) job title. Think about it.

I Want to Say

People sometimes say, “I want to say” when they really mean “I cannot remember exactly, so the information I’m about to give you is not necessarily accurate”. Stop using this expression… it’s so self-centered! To others it sounds like you want us to hang on your every word, even if you are telling us that you cannot guarantee the accuracy of your statement but don’t want to admit it.

If you insist on using this dumb expression, my answer to you is that I want to say “jiggy-jiggy bazoom boink”. What do you want to say about that?

Issues

Here’s a word I’m not fond of that falls under the Dumbing Down of the Language for Being Too Vague” category, but I can see its appeal — in fact I sometimes catch myself using it and then regret falling under its spell. It has the air of complete neutrality even though it is only used to describe some sort of conflict, protestation, or disagreement with a situation. Now I’m not talking of “issue” in the sense of an emission, a topic up for discussion, or a distinct volume of a periodical. I have issues of my own, namely Mad Magazine, Omni, and Scientific American, all in a box in the basement because my shoe box of a house has little space for bookshelves, let alone magazine racks.

Look, if you’re going to gossip about someone’s negative feelings about stuff, avoid the grey-area language and just give me the juicy details!

My Bad

This is a lovely pair of words when uttered by a two-year-old… it means that they recognize they’ve done something wrong and they’re fessing up to it. When anyone who is appreciably older says these two words as a complete sentence, it makes them sound like the kind of dork that needs to parrot kitschy phrases in order to pretend that they are something more than uni-dimensional. Get a life and a thesaurus. Try saying something a little less nitzy like, “Oops, I made a mistake”.

Myself

We’ve discussed this word before in a previous post. “Myself” is a favourite of bosses, especially when they are writing memos to their underlings. I don’t know if you’ve heard the old joke about the different parts of the body trying to figure out which one of them should be the boss, but the moral of that story certainly holds true for “superiors” who use this word in place of the simpler “me”, as in “If you have any questions, please see myself”.

Myself is a reflexive pronoun, Chief. Technically, “myself” can be used nonreflexively but unless the rest of what is written is in a very consistently formal style, writing “myself” looks so pretentious. Normally you’re supposed to use “myself” when the subject and the object of a verb is the same person, as in “My employee HoaiPhai told me to go f**k myself”.

Server

Here we go again, one of those single words that is meant to replace two gender-specific job titles. Are the words waitress and waiter so odious that they had to be done away with? Is there that great a distinction between “to serve” and “to wait (on)”? C’mon, has this substitution really helped advance women’s rights? If you believe it has, think of this phrase… “Welcome to Hooters! My name is Cindi and I’ll be your server this evening.”

I say we start a grass roots protest. From now let’s call female servers “serviettes”.

Unfriend

After having written about all the previous words I have problems with, this one doesn’t seem so bad anymore as long as its use is limited to Facebook-related topics, so let’s move along to…

You Need To…

*sigh*

Self-righteous people with over-inflated egos and a need to impose their will on others use statements beginning with this phrase in place of a simple imperative or, God forbid, tact. I have a funny feeling that in some regions of the United States this is a not particularly harsh way to say “You should… ” or “Please don’t [add opposite behaviour here].”

Nobody has ever said this to me but if anyone ever does I hope to have the presence of mind to respond “And you need to buy a jock strap!” milliseconds before I “shoot them the hoof”.

Repent! The end is near!

Maybe I’ll get a lot of flack over this post but it was well worth it if just one person drops just one of these stupid uses for words.

Now that I’ve gotten these out of my system and let off a little steam, get me started ranting again by letting me know about some of your PC Vocab pet peeves. Or should I say, “You need to list words what bug you in the comments section below!”

P.S.: This post now ranks as my 9th longest post!

About HoaiPhai

I'm up late digging up the dirt. View all posts by HoaiPhai

17 responses to “Words What Bug Me

  • clownonfire

    Unread.
    Back later.
    Le Clown

    • HoaiPhai

      I understand… it’s a “longie” so you’ve got to put some coffee on, eh?

      • clownonfire

        Seriously,
        I started reading. And I liked it.
        And I realized I had a headache, and didn’t want to miss out. So I thought: this will be your morning read, Le Clown.
        I’m happy you understand. But not surprised. As you’re a class act.
        Le Clown

      • HoaiPhai

        I used to be the class clown, but got good marks too!

  • Carl D'Agostino

    I think English is big time cool because I speak it. Another reason there are degrees and variations of words or other words that allow us to be very precise in conveying an idea. One peeve of mine is how did “conflicted” get into the language as an adj. ? He was conflicted. huh? Itshould be he was in conflict. Here conflict is a noun and the preposition “in conflict” tells how he was so it is an adverbial prepositional phrase. Conflicted is as dumb a word as conversating as you described above. This really is a million dollar essay and if I could press like a bunch and star you if I could I would. Ooops. My last sentence. See what is happening here ?

    • HoaiPhai

      Oh, I forgot about conflicted! It sounds like a modern version of demonic possession! Another I forgot but for some reason your comment reminded me of is “make a decision”. I’ve also heard “take a decision” but in Montreal I only heard people whose first language is French use the “take” version. Then I started hearing a lot of mother-tongue English speakers use the “ttake” version outside of Quebec. Why don’t people just use “decide” as a verb? Aarrgh!

      You can star me anytime!

  • Ape No. 1

    “I want to say” I usually interpret as “I do not want to listen”.

    Should we propose introducing the terms Blogger and Blogess and see if they catch on?

    • HoaiPhai

      A-ha! I failed to discuss that form of “I want to say”. I think you’re talking about the “declarative I want to say” where the speaker either wants to horn in on a pre-existing discussion or to challenge another’s statement.

      I failed to give an example of how the “qualificatory I want to say” is used to limit the speaker’s responsibility as to the [usually, quantitative] accuracy of the information in the clause that immediately follows, as in:
      Q: How old did you think the girl was before the vice squad stormed your room at The Barely Legal Massage Parlour & Emporium?
      A: I want to say, I believed she was 18, Your Honour. or. [intentionally fudging the truth]
      or
      Wife holding rolling pin questionning husband: Just how much did you have to drink last night?
      Husband (who is experiencing a sudden urge to urinate) to wife: I want to say, two light beers. [got too wasted the night before to have kept count]

      Regardless of which form used, usage usually indicates that the speaker is an ash-hole.

    • HoaiPhai

      Humm, interesting point about the feminine form of “blogger”. We could look at a whole bunch of masculine vs feminine forms and put it to the blogosphere itself to decide! We could use one of those spiffy polling apps that Greatsby uses every two weeks to dash our dreams of being crowned Caption King.

      Let’s get right on this! Here are a couple of ideas…

      Blogger/Blogess
      Bloggero/Bloggera (or the Portuguese version: Bloggiero/Bloggiera)
      Blogger/Bloggette
      Bloggito/Bloggita
      Bloggarino/Bloggarina
      Bloggo San/Bloggo Sama
      Mahahbloggeraja/Mahahbloggerani

      Could this be the key to one of us being Freshly Pressed and driving our daily hit count above the IQ number of a typical boss or traffic cop?

  • Dave Farmer

    Congrats on your 9th longest post! I do love big ‘uns! I shake my head in bafflement at your list, not through disagreement but from a squirming clenched teeth feeling whenever I hear those words.

    Currently I’m hearing a lot of “going forward” to the point where one chap I spoke to last week used it a dozen times in one 5 minute conversation. It’s not necessary, we all know what you mean, just say future or in the coming days/weeks/months etc.

    Disrespect is one of my least favourites. You put it so well too. I hear that from a lot of teenagers coupled with a strange expression of disgust. Hey, tiny young child, you are not equal to anyone above your own age, you are not important and the world isn’t pleased to see you and does not owe you a damn thing!

    An old favourite of mine is “think outside the box” which really grinds my gears. When someone says that to me I want to shout “I’m not in the box to start with! Do you want to put me in there? Why would you do that? Why is the problem even in a box? Can’t we just have a problem and a solution without adding the mental image of a box into the equation?”

    At work we have a nasty word “delegates” which sounds kind of important, like members at a UN meeting. What it actually refers to is a member of staff from one branch attending a training session at another branch. Apparently that requires them to become delegates!

    I love and loath the English language, for its ability to adapt and change but for the rape and butchery of good solid words that do exactly what they say on the tin!

    • HoaiPhai

      Oh, jeez… “going forward” — that’s Administration Speak. Here in Canada we don’t hear too many Canadian politicians use that term because they are desperately trying to aviod a parliamentary non-confidence vote that may be looming just around the corner. (Did you know that “parliament” finds its origins in two French words? “Parler”, meaning “to speak”, and “Mentir”, meaning “to lie”?)

      I just cannot stand “disrespect”… rather than test whether WP has comment size limits, I’ll move along to “think outside the box”. The guy that first said it was a genius, but “think outside the box” doesn’t bear repeating unless you’re talking about that original guy. I first heard this jem of empty-calorie phrases when I was in school and my instructor tried to “inspire” me with that dreaded bit of fluff. I had never heard it before so I asked him to explain it to me, after which I told him that I didn’t even have a box before and now he wants me to limit my ideas by excluding traditional wisdom.

      “Delegate” sounds like a “vagabond associate” to me!

      It’s an absolute pleasure getting a comment that is longer than some posts I’ve seen by word-stingy bloggers!

  • clownonfire

    Hey, I’m back.
    Told you.
    The Clown

  • The Hook

    You’ve used some very cool words to describe other words!
    Nice job, my friend!

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