Sunday, March 16, 2008

Trendy words: Use or lose, you get to choose

“Heather,” I said, reading the nametag on the shirt of the cashier at a local grocery store, “would you tell me where the film is, please?”

Milk, wienies, bread … those would have been easy. But I needed film for a 35-mm camera, and I had searched the store. Heather said, “Film?”

Uh-oh. Age alert! Age alert! “Yes,” I said, “I need to buy film for my camera.” She repeated, “Film?”

Oh my goodness. There it was, and there it stayed. I explained how some cameras don’t use memory cards and don’t serve as telephones. She still had no inkling what film is. Finally a neighboring cashier overheard us and pointed me to the Customer Service spot, where a few vestigial rolls of film awaited dustily.

It stands to reason that as time goes on, some products go away. So successive generations, I suppose, inevitably will have no knowledge even of some WORDS that we more, um, mature people have. (“What’s a record?”) On the other hand, I’ll bet that every teenager in America can tell you what brb, ttyl and btw mean, even if you have no idea.

I’ll explain those later — or, as those same teenagers might type, L8r. Let’s look at some words that are abundantly popular with all of us today. Clichés, of course, are words or phrases that are so overused that they become predictable and essentially meaningless. We try to avoid them, choosing fresh and more expressive terms, but we all slip. (A character in Neil Simon’s “Chapter Two” says: “Be that as it may — and I hasten to add that I never use expressions like ‘Be that as it may’ or ‘I hasten to add’!”)

Some words and phrases that are extremely popular today may be clichés by tomorrow. So let’s stop overusing them before that happens, eh?

Before I mention some of the popular utterances that I fear already are being used to excess, sucking their force out of them, let me state categorically that these words and phrases are not wrong. They are not mistakes, they’re not bad grammar, they’re not even to be avoided at all costs. S’matter of fact, you might even be well advised to use them in certain circumstances, simply because they are so popular, familiar, comfortable. I’m cautioning only against overuse, not against use. Almost anything done to excess is ineffective and/or annoying (“Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”).

We need to start with excellence, as in academic excellence, excellence in education, schools of excellence, the pursuit of excellence and all the other uses of “excellence” associated with education. When will educators, educated as they are, realize that the word has been used to excess, that it has lost real meaning, that they need to find other ways to express their goals and standards? A fresh, new term — that would be excellent.

Surely you’re aware that we over “ize” things these days, adding that suffix as a too-easy way to make an action word out of a noun. We prioritize, of course, and we even monetize, levelize and, if you can believe this replacement for “rotate,” we now circularize. Yesterday I heard that one part of the world was about to Talibanize.

You know what would make me happy? The death of “location, location, location.” Undoubtedly the first time it was used by someone selling a house, it was clever. Now it has wormed its way into areas of life other than real estate, and it’s even more annoying. If you’re in a vow-taking mood, let’s pledge to stop all unnecessary uses of things in threes, shall we (e.g., etc., etc., etc.; no, no, no; wait wait, wait)? Thank you.

These days, “inform” is appearing all over. “These convictions will inform his presidency.” “I hope this report informs some legislation.” “They tell how their experiences can inform the national debate.” Sometimes it’s enough simply to shape, influence and define.

More from politics: “Edwards’ message didn’t resonate with the voters.” Boy, we love to resonate. And his campaign lacked, get this, “traction.” I guess he needed the farmers’ support. Oh wait, that’s tractors.

Gosh, my space (not MySpace) is almost gone, so let me make this Trendy Words Part One and give you the promised explanations — “ttyl” means talk to you L8r, “btw” is “by the way,” and I hasten to add that “brb” stands for “be right back.”

I’m off to buy film, so ttyl.