We all have certain phrases that annoy us; oddities creep into the language that invite comment or could use correction. To that end, I propose below a list of ten annoying and/or misused words and expressions.
Please accept this list in the humorous vein in which it is intended. I am playing the role of an irritated curmudgeon, but it’s just my shtick. Have some fun with me as I complain and then feel free to add to my list.
So, can we talk? He’s my list of annoyances.
1. “With all due respect …” – This phrase is typically followed by something that isn’t going to respect the recipient at all! When you open an e-mail and it begins, “With all due respect, Mr. Jones, …,” don’t you just wince at what you just know is coming? In a way, the expression is a form of lip service. It’s a way of saying, “I want to dispense with that silly tradition of having to accord you a modicum of respect and get on to what’s really on my mind, namely, that you’re wrong and probably clueless as well.”
2. Decimate – Today the word has come to mean “to destroy completely.” For example, “Our culture has been decimated by no-fault divorce.” The original meaning, to reduce something by a tenth, has been relegated to a secondary definition in many dictionaries. The word came from the Roman practice in which, after conquering a town that was guilty of some sort of uprising, the Romans would line up all the men of that town in the public square, and kill every tenth one. In effect, the message was, “This is what you get if you mess with us. It’ll be worse next time.” Alas, trying to recover the original meaning of this word may be a lost cause at this point. It may be destined to go the way of other Latin-based words such as “manufacture,” the literal meaning of which is handmade (manu = hand, facere = to make). Today something referred to as manufactured is typically not handmade. There are other English words that seem to have reversed meanings. For example, we drive on parkways and park on driveways.
3. Service – There is a tendency today to take the noun “service” and turn it into a verb. It is common to hear someone say, “We service our clients.” or, “We serviced fifty people last month.” No! People are served, not serviced. Perhaps you may speak of a car as being serviced, but people are served. It’s hard to know where this manner of speaking came from, but I suspect it crept in from the world of prostitution, where prostitutes often speak of “servicing” their “Johns” (i.e. clients). We do not service people, we serve them; people are not serviced they are served.
4. Not unlike – This strange expression, in a way, cancels itself out as a double negative. For example, someone may say, “This car is not unlike that one.” If you put a few of those sorts of expressions into a sentence, trying to figure out exactly what the sentence means can make your head explode. In fact, it strains the meaning of the word “sentence,” which refers to a string of words that makes sense. Unless the person misspoke, this seems to just be a fancy way of saying, “This car is like that one.” Try to avoid making heads explode by not using the expression, “not unlike.”
5. Proactive – This is another strange word that has crept into our vocabulary. How is “proactive” different from active? One might argue that there’s a temporal dimension here: one who is “proactive” is one who is ahead of his time. To be honest, I’m not sure what is meant when someone is called “a proactive person.” I think it is a compliment, in that the person is “ahead of the curve” or something, but it’s just not all that clear to me — but maybe I’m just being reactive.
6. Utilize – Why not just say “use”? This oddity seems to be waning in usage, and not a moment too soon as far as I’m concerned. I live for the day when we no longer use “utilize” things.
7. Intellectually dishonest – How is being “intellectually dishonest” different from being just plain dishonest? Is not honesty or dishonesty rooted in the intellect and manifested in speech? I’ve never heard other qualifiers attached; I haven’t heard of physical dishonesty or verbal dishonesty. “You’re being intellectually dishonest” seems to me to be just a highfalutin’ way of saying “You’re being dishonest.”
8. Dialogue – Why not just say “discussion”? Instead of saying, “I’m having a dialogue with him,” why not just say, “I’m having a discussion with him”? An even more egregious abuse of this word is to “verbify” it: “Let’s dialogue about this problem.” Why not just say, “Let’s discuss this problem?” Even worse is “We’re dialoguing about this issue” instead of “We’re discussing this issue.” Turning nouns into verbs or verb forms generally produces strange results. To quote a classic line from Calvin and Hobbes, “Your verbing is weirding me out.” So, let’s talk; let’s have a discussion, but let’s limit our usage of the noun “dialogue” and certainly avoid using it as a verb or using the strange construction “dialoguing.”
9. Using “so” as an interjection – I have seen this most often in academic settings. Typically, the word “so” tends to be placed at the beginning of the answer to a question. For example, “What do the data show in relation to this problem?” The response might be, “So … the data seem to indicate that things are going to get worse.” (People sometimes use an interjection as a delaying tactic while feverishly formulating an answer in their head, but that’s not the usage to which I’m objecting.) In this case, though, I’m suspicious that it is emblematic of the relativistic climate that pervades today’s academic settings. The interjection “So …,” expressed gently and slowly, seems rather more designed to make the person seem thoughtful and somehow not arrogantly certain of what he is about to say. So … I don’t want to come off is too nasty, but would you please stop saying “so” all the time?
10. “Are you suggesting …?” – This is a preamble to a question and is often used by members of the mainstream media to indicate incredulity at an outlandish statement or position. A reporter writing a piece on the Catholic Church might ask me, “Are you suggesting that people who don’t follow the teachings of the Church are in error?” There’s a part of me that wants to answer, “I’m not suggesting anything; I’m saying it outright!” Here, too, the relativistic climate rears its head. People don’t say things or claim things; they “suggest” them. Let me be clear: as one not heavily influenced by relativism, I can say that when I am asked a question, I state an answer. I do not “suggest” an answer—and neither should you, at least when it comes to faith or morals. Do not suggest the faith, say it. Say what you mean and mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.
OK, can we talk? This is my short list; what do you want to add?