Mrs. Willie Loman said “Attention must be paid.” Of course, she wanted attention paid to Willie; I want it paid to our use of language.
How many of the following trendy words have you yourself used in the last 24 hours? Transparent, transformation, traction, on the ground, gravitas, impact, price points, push back, blowback, powerful. How about sea change, mindful, at the end of the day? Ring any bells?
Please know that I am not against the use of any of those words and phrases. No sir, nope, not me. Golly, those are all fine words — attractive, healthy, kind and considerate, I’m sure. No, what I am against — and I hope to get you on my side in this — is their overuse.
You admit, don’t you, that any word or phrase (or gesture, for that matter) used to excess will be counterproductive, in that it will draw attention to itself, distracting from the real message? Of course, overdone things also can be downright irritating. (Reader Jim asks that I attack “having said that” and “at the end of the day” because, as he puts it, “Both are very annoying to me.” Shoot, Jim, you know nothing gets done by the middle of the day!)
“Transparent” has meant several things for many years, and being open to public scrutiny is one of its main meanings. To say “Elections in Pakistan pledged to be free and fair and transparent” is absolutely fine. However, we’re about to overuse the word. I read this recently: “The report should be transparent, the results are to be transparent and the necessary actions will, therefore, be clear and transparent.” Huh? Stop.
Ideas that are popular or widespread now “gain traction.” And “on the ground”? Oh my goodness. That lil’ phrase can drive a person batty, it’s so overused these days.
When we talk about troops on the ground, we mean in the air and at sea, too. The “ground” part is often used apparently (not transparently) as a figure of speech. But the expression has gained so much traction (ahem) that it’s losing clarity. I heard this on the radio: “Your support during this fundraiser is making a huge difference on the ground, where it really counts.” Oh, great. Landscaping? And this: “We need to stabilize the housing market on the ground.” Good gracious. What does that mean?
“Gravitas” — nice word, but sometimes it’s really all right simply to say “dignity” or “seriousness,” if you want. The same goes for “impact.” Unless it involves harsh contact (a bullet impacts its target), you probably just mean “affect.” One thing affects another.
Here’s another trendy one — in the old days, we used to change things; now we “transform” them. It is everywhere. A transformation is a dramatic change, so when we use the word “transform” to describe a change that is not thorough or dramatic, well, we tend to exaggerate. Do you want to exaggerate? Maybe, maybe not.
That’s the thing about trendy words and phrases. They can become hackneyed, losing their power through overuse. However, they can be used to advantage if they’re not yet clichés. Their very familiarity makes them comfy to some readers/listeners.
Let’s just be aware of the trends. Many retail people these days prefer to talk about price points rather than price. “The collection will encompass a variety of sizes, styles and price points.” Designers, also, have been known to mention “price points,” but they say it less than they say “pop” and “space.” You’ll hear, “That color makes the room pop,” and we’re now told that we have a kitchen space, an office space, a bathroom space. Pretty fancy, huh?
We used to resist; now we “push back.” And “blowback”? There are many meanings to that (some of which we’ll not address here), but it seems that the military meaning — a negative effect one suffers from one's own weapons — has been adapted to the civilian world. Now it’s just a negative effect one suffers from one’s own actions or speech. Nothing wrong with that. Unless we overuse it.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, back from Iraq, said this: “What I saw on the ground this time was stunning, impressive and a sea change in terms of security.”
Wow. A sea change on the ground. Maybe not transparent, but definitely transformational. And having said that, I admit that Graham’s gravitas gives traction … at the end of the day, of course.