Thursday, April 9, 2009

Please Refer To The "Ascertain" Sketch By The Kids In The Hall

Paying attention to language in our culture can be frustrating. My advice is to refrain and roll with it. Because if you are paying attention, you’ll begin to notice that we love to grab and hold onto words that we think sound cool, make us feel more unique, or for some intelligent for saying them.

I had my fill of 80’s slang as a kid and I participated, as all kids do. But somewhere in the early 90’s I noticed that adults were using slang intended for their kids in regular conversation. This has to be a first in America. I can’t imagine my grandmother in the seventies calling things “groovy” or “solid” or “far-out”. However Katie Couric used “What’s the 411?” and “True that, peeps” and sounded borderline delusional.

I don’t want to get into slang as much as I want to write about the love affairs Americans have with a few terms. Sometime in the early nineties, the word random hit a spike in usage and has never looked back. For my first twenty years I used random maybe three times and heard it used (outside of math class) about four times. It was always in the phrase “at random” or “randomly”. It always was a description of mathematical possibilities. But somewhere along the line it became a synonym for strange and unique and a replacement for “out of the blue”. Although it sounds bizarre to me to refer to someone as “a random guy” or to use the phrase “How random!” I guess I was cool with it. Except, we do have the words strange, unique, odd, suddenly, stranger, et al; and the phrases “out of the blue” and “one of a kind”. All of these have been pushed aside for the word random and to me anyway, it’s not that much of a word. That one has clearly left the barn and is on its own in the world.

A few more word phrases are out there pretending they are the shit. Paradigm is another word people use far too much; particularly because it basically means situation, which is in itself a marshmallow word. Fierce is completely sucked dry. There is a phrase in business right now that is so perversely anti-English, illogical and clunky I hate to even repeat it. When there is an attribute or a function that can be added to a process or a program, it is commonly referred to as a “Value add”. What the ever-loving hell does that mean?

Instead of the phrase “Does this add value?” they say “Is it a value add?” See, this is what happens when MBA’s and computer science majors are running the show. All documents sound like a sixth grader wrote them because those people could not care any less about syntax, flow, coherence and basic grammar. It’s simple. Value is a meaningless, fat, stupid word. It needs friends to give it value. (See?) Try these on for size next time you want to butcher a work document: Increased value, decreased value, valuable, hindrance, loss, gain, and worth. And what about the intent behind the atrocious phrase value add? That is what we English speakers call a benefit. Use that instead. It has that sweet little “bene-” which mean “good”. Plus, it doesn’t sound mega-retarded.

Also, you can’t just let the word “add” out there all by itself. It doesn’t look natural.

Can a word be wrangled back in before it runs wild out there in lazy speaker land? I wish it were so. I’d go after robust. When I was a kid, robust was used to describe Maxwell House coffee beans. That’s it. Some IT guy a few years ago probably thought he was a bad-ass when he described the new version of a program as “more robust than version 2.0” or something and robust was off to the races of over usage. Now it’s everywhere describing everything.

I kind of like robust. But the problem is that when it’s out there in every third paragraph and every fourth conversation it loses its strength. It could mean something but it probably will never have a fighting chance. That is a shame. It’s a strong sounding word; it’s powerful and impressive, striking and imposing. All of which are synonyms for robust. They already float around our very fierce, robust, random language.


  1. This was one of my biggest pet peeves there (where you work)...
    We have a list of "asks."

    REALLY?! Asks? You stupid fuck, it's "questions."

  2. Agree with April and have one to add; Low Hanging Fruit. I'm so sick of that one.

    "We have to go after the 'low hanging fruit' first and then we can attack the other issues."