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The Shipwreck Rose: Bad Words

Wed, 09/09/2020 - 19:07

Some people have “sensitivities” to particular sounds (cannot abide traffic noise and require hotel rooms that admit nothing but birdsong) or to the fabric content of sweaters (can only tolerate cashmere). I myself have a pretentious sensitivity to trendy words. When new catchphrases and clichés enter the American idiom, I get itchy and scratchy.

In the 1990s, for example, I had an allergic reaction when print journalists all suddenly decided to start using the word “kudos.” Around the same time, “prior to” — awful, terrible, television-press conference-speak — began to overtake the better word “before” whenever anyone wanted to sound official. Beware the wrath of the word police! When I was a senior editor at Vogue magazine — a tenure that spanned three offices in two Manhattan high-rises, a remote workplace at my kitchen table in storm-wracked Nova Scotia, and dominion over the fashion future of a fleet of fabulous freshmen copywriters — I kept a “Cliché List” pinned to the wall by my desk, and my high-heeled approach down the carpeted-muffled halls struck terror into the heart of writers who indulged in bling-bling talk, referred to every Black cover model as a “queen,” used “snag’ as a synonym for the verb “to buy,” or included the phrase “sitting pretty” in profiles of starlets.

I have been known to go on and on about the social nuances of “couch” versus “sofa” — I am Team Couch, much to the horror of my British co-workers back at Vogue — and “carpet” versus “rug.” (Unless it’s wall-to-wall, as in the example above, “carpet,” like “sofa,” is a class signifier. A tell. As is “bucket” versus “pail.” I won’t go on.)

In the fashion world, I was an advocate for out-of-fashion words, and regularly tried to slip “purse” and even the completely outré “pocketbook” into Vogue texts. Once, I attempted to sneak in “pantyhose,” but was caught by an eagle-eyed and not very fun-loving copy editor. We weren’t supposed to use the word “gown,” which Anna Wintour thought was old-fashioned, although I begged to differ: Her opinion was what was old hat. I’d scold my colleagues: Not every handbag is just a bag or tote; the accessory in question might be a reticule, minaudière, or envelope clutch. Not every hat is a fedora, friends — let’s call a bowler a bowler, a boater a boater, and a cartwheel hat a cartwheel hat.

(As a private joke with myself I once also snuck the phrase “turkey-lurkey” into print, just for laughs . . . and I did laugh for a long time about that one.)

The summer of 2020 is notable for the obnoxious overuse, to my over-nice ears, of the phrase “If I’m honest.” I’ve heard the president of the United States use this phrase repeatedly, which . . .  which . . . no need to comment on that here. My son, Teddy, started prefacing every sentence with “If I’m honest” back in July. More trying is the recently ubiquitous exclamation “coming in hot!” I have it in the back of my mind that “coming in hot!” originated with fighter planes landing fast, gun turrets scorching, on aircraft carriers during World War II — I must have read a contemporary use somewhere — although Google, the great homogenizer of ideas and information, says it was to do with helicopters in Vietnam. Anyway, everyone keeps saying “coming in hot!” I’ve heard “coming in hot!” in reference to children returning to school and in reference to hotties arriving in micro-bikinis on the rooftop Las Vegas set of the reality romance show “Love Island.” We need to stop this. Coming in cold.

Adding “the” before nouns when it isn’t really necessary is a comical linguistic extra the cool kids have been tacking on as a flourish, for a chuckle, for a decade or more, but this year it’s getting a workout with The Covid.

The olds didn’t know what the teenagers meant when they started using the word “stan” a couple of years ago, but we are catching on: To “stan” is something akin to fandom — liking something, approving of something. I stan sunsets, holding hands at the picture show, piña coladas, and getting caught in the rain while walking on the beach with first dates named Dale, Darrel, or Duane. (Joke! Or, as my daughter would actually say out loud, J-K! How easy it is to tease the teenagers with your parental uncool. They’re sitting ducks, these adolescents.)

More up-to-date in the summer of 2020 is saying something “slaps.” That means it’s great. The Link Wray song “Hidden Charms” slaps. Cherry slushies from the gas station food counter slap. Dolly Parton has always slapped.

Etymologists writing the history of 2020 will note the common usage of “P.P.E.,” personal protective equipment, which no one who wasn’t a doctor, first responder, or emergency medical technician needed to have in their vocabulary before the year turned dreadful in March. Capturing the zeitgeist even more drearily, to me, is the word “cohort.” Who ever said “cohort” before 2020? Social scientists conducting research on the incidence of celiac disease among tire-factory workers, that’s who. Now we all are being forced to talk about school cohorts, work cohorts, pods . . . I’m never again using the word “cohort,” ever again, for as long as I live. If I have to refer to my group of colleagues at work, I’ll say “colleagues,” and if I have to refer to my group of friends, I won’t say “cohort” or “posse” or “squad” — or even “legion,” though that has quite a ring to it — I will just say “group.”

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