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 the offenders.

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 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 bad habits?
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.
actually suggests
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 contrary evidence." 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.
Best Practices
The recommended way to do something now has an official title of "best practices". This allows seminars and workshops to be held which are not titled "How to do stuff well" but rather "Best Practices in Machine Learning". It's annoying, because really you're just saying "Here's how to do it right"...
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.
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 "Celebration"!.

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 celebrated."

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 guess.
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 monument help?]

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 necessarious.
Corner Case
Computer scientists often deal with tables of numbers, and sometimes the patterns they want to use won't work for numbers that are along the edges, or worse, in the corners of the table, since they don't have the nice feature of having a neighbor left, right, above and below. This has given rise to the phrase Corner Case, which now refers to any oddball situation where the usual rule of thumb breaks down.
An ill-made word for the practice of making decisions.
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.
is a word that should have no currency outside of mathematics and the sciences that use. It refers to a specific rate of growth that is commonly observed, in which the number of new objects created is proportional to the number already there; in other words, it is similar to a biological pattern in which 300 humans will have on average 5 babies a year, but 3000 humans will have 50 babies a year. In this simple model, such a population will grow or decline in a predictable rate; in the case of growth, the population will seem eventually to suffer explosive increases, although these are simply the same proportional growth, but applied to a much larger population. Really not stunning, is it? And yet, like its relative "quantum", the word exponential has been hijacked by people who speak faster than they can think, and is thrown in to mean "vastly" or "way way more" or even simply used as a thoughtless intensifier. I am driven to this note because I am reading a dull military biography by an author who has a number of verbal tics, one of which is that, every time that something is bigger, better, or smarter than something else, it is described as exponentially bigger, exponentially better, or exponentially smarter. "The onset of winter would make bringing up supplies exponentially more difficult."
"Fraught" is a hoary old English word that has a Germanic relative "fracht", meaning "weighted", and is related as well to "freight". A meeting can be fraught, that is, loaded, with tension; a relationship can be fraught, that is, filled, with suspicion. But careless writers who don't think about what they've heard will tell you that the 80's were a "fraught decade", or that someone gave a "fraught statement". They're giving you an empty package! If the decade was "filled", then what was it filled with? If the statement was weighted, what was weighing heavily in it? They seem to think that "fraught" is equivalent to "fraught with bad things". It's not.
"Genius" is one of those imported words that doesn't easily fit into the patterns of English. This doesn't stop some people from forcing it to their will, so that they say things like "All airlines should use this genius armrest", where "genius" is used as though it were an adjective. It might be nice if "genial" were available for this case (it isn't). It's clearly desirable that a suitable word could be popped into that position in that sentence. "Genius" is not that word.
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.
Joe has a flat tire but doesn't know how to fix it. I do. So Joe comes over to me and I knowledgeshare with him, bless my little heart. I could have just told him, but using this kind of windy phrase makes it all so much more technical.
... 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 "preventative medicine".
Problematic is an airy way of saying "I don't know what to say or think or do about this, so I'm just going to talk like I have this analyzed and under control."
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!
Quote Unquote
means the user doesn't listen to what is being said. This is used as a verbal indication that some word or phrase is being quoted, and thus stands in a different status from the rest of one's speech. While speakers often say things like "Bob is quote unquote ready to serve," they are obviously too insensitive to realize their mistake, when they should have said "Bob is quote ready to serve unquote." Instead, they are simply quoting the empty space between the quotation marks, a possible insight into the empty space in their heads.
is a fifty cent word for "changing", and "reinventing oneself" is a shabby concept.
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 "trickle down".
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 properly.
Our bookless library proudly announces on its webpage "The Libraries are trialing databases!", and urges us to comment.
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!
Use Cases
This nasty phrase is prevalent only in a small sector of the computing world. Whatever its coiner originally wanted it to mean, it is now used to mean "instances" or "ways of use" or "sample usages". When a computer scientist discusses a new scripting language, someone in the audience is liable to ask "Can you give us some use cases?" meaning "When would I be likely to use this thing you are talking about?". But "use cases" is an ugly makeshift Frankenstein phrase that no one will miss when it finally loses its currency. Sadly, the phrase actually is part of a whole theology of system engineering, and has a book (of the same infamous name!), a language (UML), a diagram system, and an entire vocabulary of step applied by a role and a system to achieve a goal. Luckily, almost nobody talks to THOSE people!
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!)
Work Flow
Wet your hair; put shampoo in your hair; rub it in; rinse it out. To anyone else, that's how you do a task but to techies this is a simple example of what must now be called a work flow. Simplify your work flow! Ramp up your work flow! Rationalize your work flow! It all sounds so nice and airy, as opposed to working simpler, harder, or smarter. But that just sounds like common sense, and we don't get paid unless we sound obscure.
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.
Isn't clear
In this world of uncertain knowledge, not much is clear. But what is to be gained by saying "Given the violent mood of the crowd, the fate of Mr Rumbuckle is unclear" or "It's unclear whether the Russians will back down" or similar vacuous attempts to fill time? Isn't the news supposed to be about what is clear? If you don't know something, then don't tell me that, because I already didn't know, and knowing that you don't know either isn't going to cheer me up. Shut up until you know something!

Last modified on 09 April 2018.