Junk Words and Phrases
Perhaps I read too much, and listen to too many radio programs.
But I am distressed by fashionable cliches and the empty-headed words
that are flung out of some minds in an apparent effort to mimic
thoughtful communication. Similarly distasteful are the arm-length
words that roll out of the mouth of a hard-core academic or
professional that, presumably, have some meaning well-hidden in them,
but which have taken the place of plain speech. Here are a few of
- A Priorily
Mathematicians who work on the analysis of partial differential
equations have a need to distinguish between such things as
estimates made before and after an approximate solution has been computed.
Borrowing from philosophy, these are called a priori and
a posteriori estimates. This long-winded way of saying "before"
and "after" is accepted as a useful denotation for this practice.
However, it should have been expected that the these words would
began to develop mutant spawn. And my colleague Steve Hou tells me
he read in a mathematical paper a sentence that began,
We know a priorily that this function is unbounded.
- Advocate for
Chairman of review panel advocates to strengthen gun laws
Canada's Polaris Group, which advocates for social change,
wants people to take a closer look at whats 'inside the bottle'.
FSU students advocate for disabled students
Following in the footsteps of the omnipresent ombudsman or
ombudsperson, we now have a pack of people who call themselves
advocates, in some cases as a job title. Most advocates are
self-appointed and self-styled. That's fine too.
What isn't so fine is when they're telling the barber or the
grocery cashier something like:
"I advocate for pet's rights." The etymology of advocate
should remind such dolts that the word's meaning is speak for,
or speak on behalf of. If they're not comfortable with
rephrasing their statement to "I advocate pet liberation"
then why not say "I speak for pet's rights," or "I speak on
behalf of pet's rights"? Why ride the wrong horse and teach it
- Almost literally, literally like
Whenever I hear the word "literally", I expect it to be used in
the new, improved sense of "figuratively". Occasionally, you
hear someone who remembers an older meaning, but doesn't quite
decide what to say and how to say it. So an awkward phrase like
"almost literally" tumbles out:
"People were almost literally jumping up and down on the table,
saying one couldn't possibly implement the recommended functions
at a reasonable cost."
Ivars Peterson, in "Fatal Defect".
"Noguchi had been, literally, like a son to Flexner."
John Barry, "The Great Influenza".
Sure, we can all guess what this means...but is it really
necessary to have this word? Designing isn't good enough?
Building won't do? I ran across this word-toad in the
title of a book:
Architecting Web Services,
by William Oellermann
The fashionable word arguably apparently doesn't mean anything,
except that a speaker is pausing for a mental breath while letting the
mouth run on. The effect of the word is to weaken the statement; it
suggests that the speaker isn't sure enough to speak plainly, and so
hides behind the idea that someone else has already put forth this claim,
or that the speaker could think of a few arguments that would support it.
Fred is arguably the greatest musician of all time.
Fred might be one of the greater musician of many times, but I don't
want to argue with Courtney Love about it.
Bizarrely, the opposite of "arguably" means almost the same thing, in that
it intends to shore up the statement. However, instead of suggesting
"it could be argued that", it seems to be saying "it's so obvious that
even you couldn't deny this." I have seen the word "inarguably" show up,
meaning "I'm so sure of this statement that I won't even consider
And yet, on the face of it, "Fred is inarguably the greatest
musician of all times" is only slightly more intense than when the
word "arguably" is used.
Literally, your weapons, but figuratively, your bag of tricks, or the
resources at hand. But if you're a doctor, (excuse me, a
physician!) then a little blue pill is now a new modality
for your armamentarium.
- By Definition
There should be a licensing requirement phrases that attract the
mindless word slingers. "By definition" means just that, and is
used, thoughtfully and judiciously, by mathematicians, who take
great pains to describe sensible definitions of things, and then
argue the implications of those definitions. If a circle is
defined to be the set of points in the plane that are all a given
distance from a given point, then a circle is "by definition"
a set of points. That is, you can see immediately from the definition
that one thing for sure about a circle is that it must be a set of
points. It's not "by definition" round. It's not a lot of things,
by definition. The properties we like to think of in reference to
a circle must be derived from its definition. But the ignorant
think that "by definition" just means I really mean this, or
this is so obvious. So that's why you open up the ever
more disappointing Discover magazine for May 2002 to find
Darts fired from an air pistol are, by definition, non-sterile.
WRONG! YOU ARE INCORRECT! TURN IN YOUR ENGLISH LICENSE, PLEASE!
In these days, every child gets a star. Every action, and its
equal and opposite inaction, is worthy of being "celebrated". If this
is your idea of a party, don't invite me! There's even a
Disney-manufactured town in Florida called
This from an article in May 1993 Scientific American:
Given that the usefulness of maps derives from their bias
and subjectivity, these are qualities to be highlighted and
Leave aside the wretched construction of this sentence, which
occurs in the final paragraph of the article, where it presumably
had been placed as a special delight for the reader.
Ignore the cheap and tendentious assertion that maps (just like
all other authority) are biased and subjective. Consider, instead,
what the author is urging us to do as he hurries to finish his article
so he can reference it in his resume. We are to highlight and
celebrate the bias and subjectivity of maps, because even these
bad things are... well, worth celebrating anyway. Well, hurray, I
A bill was introduced into the Virginia Senate to allow relatives
of murdered people to watch executions. The justification was
that this would "allow them to reach a kind of closure".
One remark I have is that, formally, this stupid phrase is simply
another way of saying "they'll get to see that the bastard is dead,
so it's over." So in part, I despise this phrase for being a
perversion of English into thoughtless babble.
But what's worse is that the use of this phrase creates a
psychological need for closure. It solicits from the listener
the belief that a "need for closure" is a legitimate justification
for various irrational demands. The Vietnam veterans never
got a parade, and so the Washington memorial "provided closure."
[If that were true, then how come they keep going back, over and
over, and can't stop talking about the war? Would a bigger
Excuse me. I have to go bring the door to closure.
This is a word I've seen over and over again in newspapers and
expecially Discover magazine (which has steadily been dumbed
down to the level of the late "SCIENCE '88/SCIENCE '89/..." magazine,
creating room for the dumbed-down Scientific American).
It's supposed to be an exciting variation of the word "mixture" or
"brew". The excitement comes from the fact that a cocktail
has alcohol in it. Whoopy! You just have to get annoyed, though,
when a mixture of medicines to induce death, or to get addicts off
of heroin, or to reduce pain, or to stimulate the production of
eggs, has to be termed a cocktail.
Why not "a smelly, oily liquid of unnatural color"? No? Well then
how about "an aperitif"? The previous "sexy" word for mixture was
"soup", as in "The origin of life was in a complex soup of raw
chemicals." Of course, if "soup" is too tired, and "cocktail" is
inappropriate, we can just call it a "witch's brew". Oops, that's
a little too colorful nowadays!
A backformation from "commentator". I hold in my hands a
TV listing which proclaims "Scott Hamilton commentates on the
2002 Winter Olympic Games". Surely no further commentation
is a two dollar word for "analyzing" (for which it is nearly cognate)
but generally is used to mean "nitpicking analysis performed to
mock or ridicule." But it all sounds so much grander in French.
Let it stay there. No, that's too much to ask. Pimply-faced
journalists who heard the word while dozing through their classes
now use it reflexively as a handy, well-dressed, and thoughtful-seeming
alternative to "figure out".
means taking out something between. Paul Ginsparg, a recent winner
of a MacArthur grant, (and hence a media-certifiable "genius") who
was being honored for having set up arXiv, an online archive of
electronic papers, said:
The first reaction people have to a system like arXiv is the
insinuation that my kind of open system makes scientific
misconduct more likely by disintermediating the editorial process.
as in "Grow the economy", sounds like it comes from the
vocabulary of the same people who dreamed up "birthing" a baby.
It doesn't happy me to hear this.
- I can help who's next!
One odd thing about this phrase is that it seems to have
sprung into use across the country in a short time.
I can only guess that it serves a need (what can I shout
out that sounds helpful rather than peremptory, but
does not require an answer?) or that corporations have
made it a part of their enforceable culture. I realize
that Next! and Who's next? have their faults,
but the awkward construction of this phrase surely tells
us there's a better one yet undiscovered.
- It's the repetition, stupid!
Reporters have to turn out a certain
number of buckets of prose every day, and it's hard to be creative
every day. But it's also hard to write prose knowing you're being
bland and boring. So journalists are drawn to catchphrases that
make them sound current, clever and witty. TIME magazine has been
doing this for years, especially in its article titles.
Frequently, you can't figure out what the article is about from the
title, because the author is so busy showing off. A new phrase
that has entered the journalist's tiny mind (one hopes this has
allowed some other, tired phrase to finally rest in peace) is
derived from James Carville's sign "It's the Economy, Stupid!"
which was supposed to remind him of where to keep his focus.
Sadly, he has ruined many a news article for me, because of the
compulsive phrase jabbering of press monkeys.
"***** is key" is a phrase I cannot get used to. I understand that
once you allow "key" to be an adjective in front of a noun, it can
go off on its own and show up anywhere. I can tolerate "a key
assumption", but "This assumption is key." sets my teeth on edge.
I've already ranted about how "key" has become a general purpose
adjective. I don't mind "a key employee", but when the phrase
becomes "that employee is key" my teeth begin to gnash automatically.
My fears have been compounded, now that I have heard someone on
the radio talking about "the keyest part of my work". I warned
you, but you did nonthing! Next, of course, we are going to be
treated to descriptions of things that are "keyer" than others,
and then we can start behaving in a "keyly" fashion.
is just a method or means or form, but this fancy word appeals to literary
frauds and tin-plated medicos alike. I remember my roommate trying to
explain to me why I should be impressed with James Joyce's phrase
"the ineluctable modality of the visible"; I gave in before the
overwhelming collective counter-factual cultural idolatry of Joyce.
is the cargo-cult version of irony.
- Paradigm, Paradigm Shift
is too obvious an offender to complain about. Thomas Kuhn
bears heavy responsibility for writing a thinly thought-out
book that brought us paradigms and paradigm-shifts and the
knick-knack-paddywack dogma that the primary motif in the
history of human thought, including science, is the distortion
of facts to fit the current ideology. Now that Kuhn's paradigm shift
formulation is the dominant paradigm for historians of popular culture,
we can only pray for the day the paradigm shift is shifted off the stage!
I can't believe that people persist in using the word "parameters"
as though it meant "limits". I don't accept the explanation that
they think they're saying "perimeters" either. For one thing,
an object only has one perimeter.
is used as though it meant "nearly". In this role,
it's simply a weakening, filler word used by people who don't
want to be held to what they say, and want to sound cautious and
careful. "He's a potential killer" might be a reasonable thing
to say. However, next we see "This is a potential danger". But
that's wrong. A danger is a danger, plain and simple. A potential
danger is something that isn't dangerous, but has the potential
to be so. But I guess people are afraid to commit themselves to
anything, and it's not uncommon to hear people saying things
like "scientists warn that there could be a risk of a potential hazard..."
Isn't this four orders of magnitude away from something real?
A preventative measure results, presumably, in the preventation of
something. Say that once or twice, and then tell me that
"preventative" is a word. I would like to carry out the preventative
societal confistication of such mutant words, irregardless.
And thanks to Kirk Nelson for correcting me, after I had
"corrected" his resume to indicate that he wanted to work in
There's a "peace process", a "grief process", a "healing process", which
all sound like they come with a technical manual. Somehow, the Israelis
and Palestinians can have a "peace process" while they throw rocks at each
other, shoot each other, call each other names. Since we all go through
the "aging process", I await a best seller called "Process Your Aging!".
- Pushing the envelope
Sometimes a phrase comes into style suddenly, and you hear everyone
using it, and it sounds fresh and new. It's only a few years later,
when an empty-headed radio columnist is trying to "bring his story
to closure" by mouthing a suitably earnest formula, that you can get
a good laugh and realize there was nothing special about the phrase
after all, and nobody really understood what it meant.
There I was again, listening to NPR, when a jazz musician was described
as "pushing the envelope to its limits". That sounds like a noble
thing to do, I suppose, except that the envelope IS the limits. Unless
you are a mathematician, you are not allowed to think of the envelope
of all envelopes!
is a fifty cent word for "changing", and "reinventing oneself" is a
- Rite of passage
Certain books seem to exist not to be read, but merely to display
a catchy title that can jump into popular circulation. I think of "The
Greening of America", for instance, a book title which instantly
became a useful substitute for thought across the country. Now
"rite of passage" comes flying out of someone's mouth when they
simply mean "a socially important moment". I can't quite see the
point in this business of rites, anyway, unless you've caught on that
your horoscope doesn't tell you much about yourself, and so now
you're back on a quest for deeper meaning at little personal cost.
People learn to speak by imitation and repetition. After they
master "wawa" and the more useful nouns and phrases, they begin
learning cliches and stock phrases. Every adolescent already knows
the "joke" that people say they read Playboy for the articles. I
suppose they have to wait til college to start hearing, over and over,
this phrase from Casablanca. But it's not clever any more,
it's just tedious, and betrays a lazy speaker.
OK, it's not like this is the worst word in the world, but how
did it come from nowhere and take over so suddenly? Granted,
we all know about the Salad Shooter, but any time a
rifle was fired, we called it gunplay and the person
holding the gun was known as a gunman -
well, I suppose we should be more cautious, and gunperson
won't do. Remember, John Wayne starred in The Shootist
a while back. But the first time I ever ever heard "shooter"
was in the vile Oliver Stone vile movie (just so we're clear
that vile goes both ways here!) JFK, in which the
non-vile, just dough-headed Kevin Costner's protrayal of the
vile Jim Garrison goes on and on about "the first shooter was
here and the second shooter was here." The word was used very
often, and made a jarring impression on me. Now, of course,
we don't have gunplay, which would make it seem like fun,
and distress the victims, so we have shooting incidents, and
and associated shooter.
I suppose I should be grateful that the title of that John Wayne
movie, The Shootist, didn't come into vogue instead!
I suppose there are occasions when the adjective "social" has
already acquired a special sense, so that it might be useful
to have a second form of the word. For instance, it might
be handy to have the phrase societal disease available
as long as social disease means something nasty. But
instead, I think societal is used for the same reason
that preventative is: it's longer, has a nice rhythm
and is clearly only meant to apply to abstract society, not to
the small incidental groupings of a few individuals.
And for these reasons, we're stuck with societal goals,
societal needs, societal characteristics and
all the other ill-gotten phrases.
- Speaks to
When did some dyslinguist begin saying that something "speaks to"
when they meant "speaks about"? "This book speaks to his ability
to turn a company around," for instance. Does it just sound
more eddi-kated? Is it just an unconscious fad? And now comes
the extended word tic "speaks to the question".
- Take a decision, Take a meeting
Where I come from, we make a decision, and we attend
a meeting. I am not surprised to hear business people regurgitating
their common jargon, but I am startled to hear the "take a decision"
phrase occur commonly on BBC broadcasts.
Every now and then, the jargon of business coins a phrase that
spreads into common speech. Here, we have the word takeaway,
which for many years was nothing but the British equivalent of
the American takeout, that is, the designation of food
bought at a restaurant but intended to be eaten elsewhere.
Now the word has acquired the meaning of the message or content
of a presentation, action, or situation, so that one commentator
may commentate to another, "What's the takeaway from the President's
failure to get his nominee approved?".
Whoever thought that temblor was a useful word to avoid
saying earthquake too many times should have thought again.
Who can look at that word rapidly and not see trembler instead?
And it sounds the same, as well. Since temblor is a Spanish
word, which comes from the Latin tremulare, meaning, of
course, to tremble, then it is perfectly correct, and in fact,
makes sense, to call these things tremblers. The problem
with using trembler, as with any scientific term that
actually makes sense, is that you can't reserve it for only the
uses you want. I assume that's why they reached into another language
and grabbed a word they could define as they wanted, and reserve
for their use. But it means trembler, it sounds like trembler,
and you don't feel like a snob for saying it.
- A Thousand Points of Light
Now that George Bush has gone, we are left with a few phrases that
will (one hopes) quickly shuffle off the stage to be heard no more.
These include "a thousand points of light", and "kinder, gentler",
two phrases that were quickly rattled off by any incompetent Bush
impersonator, and that insinuated themselves into newspaper-speak.
One can't be too hopeful, however. Ninny news writers still cannot
break themselves from Reagan phrases like "evil empire" and
- Tipping Point, the
One day, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a whole book, inflating the idea of the
straw that broke the camel's back into a gas bag of maunderings about
the wonders of discontinuity and nonlinearity. (Well, he didn't put
it that way, and he is a good writer (technically), though
hardly a disciplined or mature thinker, and he had
lots of interesting stories, but still... And the surprising thing is
that because he called the book The Tipping Point and it sold well,
and there must have been a need for this phrase, it suddenly proliferated
into the jargon of the intelligentsia, and shows little sign of dying out.
The phrase caught my attention only because it irritates me; it seems
invented and awkward, but I suppose it's another thing I'll have to
learn to live with! And now Malcolm is out there running around giving
his $50,000 lectures to businesses and conventions about how
everything you know is wrong and it's all very simple really and
it's all a lot of stories anyway.
- Too little, too late
was a catchy phrase for a moment, but did this elaborate form of
"no" have to become a conversational filler? Presumably what is
meant is "too little OR too late". The phrase sounds more damning
than, say, simply "too little", perhaps because it complains twice.
But if you're not going to accept an offer that's too little, then
it's gratuitous to add that you're not going to accept it because
it's too late.
"It's a travesty!" people cry out, when they think
they've been wronged. A travesty of what? A travesty is a
grotesque imitation, but it's an imitation OF SOMETHING. It's
correct to say "It's a travesty of justice." I happen to be sick
of the word "travesty" anyway, but I wish people would use it
Good God, what's he got against this word? Well, let the old
master complainer tell you! Any book on catastrophic water waves
is going to tell you that these were commonly called tidal
waves, but that is so incorrect, because they have nothing
to do with the tides (that is, they are not caused by the influence
of the moon's gravitation.). Instead, we are told, the preferred
term is tsunami, a Japanese word...that means "harbor wave".
So tell me, why is a "harbor wave" a better name than "tidal wave"?
A tidal wave is a big tide, it looks like a tide, we don't call it
a tidal wave because of what causes it, but of how it looks.
And tsunami doesn't mean "big solitary ocean-crossing wave cause
by seismic disturbance", does it? It means "harbor wave". So
why is it a better name? Because it's Japanese, and no one knows
what it really means, except the Japanese, who are probably told
by fatuous Japanese science writers that although they commonly
call these things a tsunami, they don't really only occur
in harbors, so it's better to use the English phrase tidal wave!
A vibrant community, a vibrant child, a vibrant social life...could
you actually describe what it means to be vibrant? Perhaps you
could associate some adjectives, such as "active, fresh, lively,
not boring, ...", but those are only loose synonyms. What does
"vibrant" really mean? Where did "vibrant" come from, and who
needs it? Is anything describable as unvibrant? (Please
don't start throwing that word around now, too!)
- Wrong Place, Wrong Time
Just like too little, too late, this phrase tries too hard.
- What did Charlie Brown know and when did he know it?
has become the knee-jerk phrase of people who imagine they are pulling
off a major investigation. It is, apparently, the goal of every tinhorn
congressman to be featured on the television news broadcast repeating
this phrase. Perhaps it made some sense to ask this question repeatedly
about Richard Nixon, since the case depended on whether Nixon had
foreknowledge of the break-in, and whether he knew certain facts before
or after he made certain statements. But no one recalls that context
now. They just bellow out the question ominously when browbeating a
second-rate pill salesman.
- In recovery, in denial
apparently seem deeper, perhaps more scientific than "recovering" or
"denying", perhaps because you can leave out the rest of the phrase;
recovering from what? Denying what? We aren't told, so I guess we
have to be in the know.
Actually too tired to finish this complaint right now!
- Isn't clear
Cranky rant to come later.
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Last modified on 30 January 2012.