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Bistro: Overused? (Danny Bailey/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Bistro: Overused? (Danny Bailey/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Russell Smith: On Culture

The fickle fate of words: here today, gone tomorrow Add to ...

Hugo Lindgren, editor of The New York Times Magazine, recently gave language enthusiasts another list to get working on. In his piece "Words We Don't Say," he let readers in on a collection of words that were banned from a magazine he worked for in the nineties. These were words his editor did not want to see in print, and they tended to be the very kind of colourful, modish phrases that one expects to read in magazines. The editor refused to print the word eatery, for restaurant, for example, or boast for have or don for wear or penned for wrote or queried for asked. One really wonders what magazine - particularly what lifestyle magazine - could fill its pages without using these words. These words are pretty much what magazines are.

Previous columns by Russell Smith

Readers wrote in with their own least-liked journalistic phrases, and predictably the compilation veered very quickly from familiar magazine short-hands to every business buzzword and common misuse in the language. The readers' list of hated phrases is so long it encompasses almost the entire lexicon. Why would anyone want to eliminate the words basically, chastise and deeply from English? Probably just because someone didn't like the message of the article they appeared in. This exercise actually shows how unuseful pet peeves are. Our general dissatisfactions with life so easily spill over into a censoriousness about the words that represent it. But just because I am annoyed by the ubiquity of restaurant reviews doesn't mean there is anything actually wrong with the word bistro.

It's important to remember, when carrying out this exercise, that the request is not just for overly trendy or hackneyed words. What the original editor was trying to do was point out the tricks that writers use to avoid repeating words, and how predictable these become. There is an unwritten convention in magazines that one shouldn't use the same word twice on the same page. This makes things really tricky for a reviewer who is covering three restaurants in one article. Hence "eatery" - a word that no human ever uses in speech. It's only in city magazines that anyone ever "quaffs" beer - and it's only because drink seems so pedestrian.

This faux-clever substitution is what the grammarian H.W. Fowler called, sarcastically, "elegant variation." He was no fan of it. "The real victims," he wrote, "first terrorized by a misunderstood taboo, next fascinated by a newly discovered ingenuity, and finally addicted to an incurable vice, are the minor novelists and reporters."

Being both of those, I am frequently guilty of the crime. I have faced the same problem in writing about clothes and admit I have given in to "don" and "sport" in cringe-worthy efforts to avoid "wear." Book reviewers may be forgiven for resorting to "penned" and "authored" for similar reasons. This is why you have read recently about temblors rather than earthquakes and podiuming rather than winning a medal. (Podiuming is a clever substitute for medalling which is itself an "elegant variation.") Headline writers, faced with such narrow spaces, have a particularly tough time finding synonyms for words that are more than a few letters long: That's why only in newspapers is a nomination a nod and a small child a tot.

I asked colleagues at The Globe and Mail, editors and writers, for their own list of overused phrases. They were vociferous about their disdain for certain words that, paradoxically, we are all responsible for popularizing in the first place. Any word ending in "-ista" (on the model of fashionista) is now tiresome to the experts, as is the useful phrase "on trend" (another thing we have come up with so as not to repeat fashionable). The arts and fashion critics are sick of iconic and edgy. They are even sick of clever-sounding words such as chiaroscuro (used too often to describe anything dim) and eponymous (of anything named after a person). They show a keen self-consciousness when it comes to the words that are their stock-in-trade: They are now wary of noir, quirky and angst. We are now going to have to come up with more precise and original descriptors.

Which is funny, because these are still perfectly good words, but we feel we have ruined them for ourselves; they bug us only because we once thought they were so clever.

 

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