Disrupting ‘Disruptive’ and Other Impacts of the Word Wars

Earlier this month we were hit with the annual lists of the most annoying words of 2012. Cliche-spotting has become a favorite year-end pastime on the coasts as media and tech-types decide (often after months of incessantly using them themselves) that certain buzzwords or turns of phrase are just so over.

And then there is the periodic controversy surrounding the latest additions to the Oxford English Dictionary. This time around, these words may include “dumbphone,” “‘flexitarian” and “omnishambles.”

I am inclined to give newly popular words and phrases the benefit of the doubt, assuming until strong evidence appears to the contrary that they do represent a new shade of meaning, and thus can enrich the language, and will get weeded out sooner or later if they fail in this—all of which means that the articles policing annoying or unnecessary words can themselves seem annoying or unnecessary.

But the worst part about all this word policing is that it sullies some very nice words and phrases before they even have a chance to trickle down. A few too many mentions in Wired or Ad Age and—wham!—a word we’re all still getting used to is suddenly passé. My local restaurant reviewer may never have a chance to use a fine word like “twee,” “meme” or “curate.” Is it too late for that unusual Asian fusion dish at my local eatery to be “disruptive”? (Is “Asian fusion” even still a thing?)

Have trends replaced actual culture? Can anything stick around long enough to fully sink in, spread through the muskeg and take on new meanings, influences and iterations? Can words, like cuisines, no longer evolve without a hyphen? Can “bemused” ever be allowed to mean “slightly amused,” as many seem to want it to, rather than confused?

But I digress.

Lets us media types try to remember that we can get sick of words or phrases others do not even know yet. Rather than fawn over, overuse and condemn them, let’s try to give them some time to settle into the lexicon. To allow a nice word to flame out is to chip away at one of the greatest features of the English language—useful synonyms.

Having said all that, I really do hate when people use “literally” to mean “truly.” And don’t get me started on the one about the Kimono.

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  • Sondra Sneed

    As a writer for industry, the lack of "innovative" synonyms for "world-class" corporations can stymie the best of us. I am especially "bemused" by the use of nouns as verbs when people are "dialogue-ing" in meetings. They are looking for "outcomes" with "excellence" that will "beat the competition."

    I know as a writer it is my job NOT to use cliches, or even to repeat words in a paragraph. But there are days I am paid to do exactly that to please my client.

    I am saying this to beg for more (what’s another word for synonym?) to trickle down, so that "at the end of the day" there are more words that inspire, stupefy, and dazzle. Words that I can use in a PowerPoint presentation, words that will not be "disruptive," but soothe a button-down. That’s what cubical dwellers really need, something to wake them from the synaptic muddle of our "monetizing" mess.