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Books Russell Smith: The Elbowgate apology and the impact of despised buzzwords

For me, the most egregious behaviour exhibited by our Prime Minister in Elbowgate was not roughhousing or repeated apology, but the repeated and mysterious use of the word "impact" as a verb. He just couldn't keep away from it, in his multiple mea culpas. He kept saying he hadn't meant to impact anyone. He apologized for anyone he had impacted.

I know, linguists are bored with this debate. It is a non-debate: Impact has a long history as a verb in English, has been used by many illustrious writers and has been accepted as standard for decades. The verbing of nouns is also a beloved feature of English (to foreground, to highlight). And yet I still expect more precise and poetic language from a public speaker. He could have said affected. He could have said harmed. He could have said impinged on.

What's wrong with impact? Well, first, it's just dull and bland. It doesn't carry any useful meaning. Obviously, Trudeau did impact someone, in the sense that there was an impact. He means he is sorry if he caused anyone pain or distress. Impacted sounds like a painful medical condition. ("Whoa, you want a doctor to look at that. I think it's impacted.") But it also sounds like something a sociologist says: It sounds like jargon. We can only be thankful he restrained himself from adding "negatively" before this verb.

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So, see, even though a word may be technically appropriate and respectable, it may still be looked down on by the gatekeepers of literary language (professors, editors). Those people are constantly exchanging lists of hated words, words that have for some reason become modish and seem unnecessary or ugly.

My own list of despised buzzwords currently includes anything with a useless suffix such as -ity or -ology on it. My prime bugbear: methodology. In 99 per cent of its current uses, it can be replaced by method. Methodology is the study of methods, but that's not what fine-art students mean when they write "My methodologies include meditation." They mean methods.

This is like saying price point for price, another habit of the pompous. It reflects the assumption that more syllables create a weightier impression.

Ditto for function and functionality (throw chalk at the computer techie who says, "Your machine has lost certain functionalities"), use and utilize, and – another favourite of art students – space and spatiality. Spatiality just never needs to be used at all.

Those are easy enough. The debate gets murky over other common short/long oppositions: orient/orientate, oblige/obligate, preventive/preventative. Orient seems much simpler and cleaner than orientate, and they are used synonymously, so orient is the preferred word of the educated. But the longer word also has a robust history of usage, dating to the 19th century. Has it been wrong for 200 years? Again, the uncool word is not exactly wrong – it's perfectly standard – but just uncool.

Oblige versus obligate? Some experts argue that there is a subtle difference of meaning. To oblige is to pressure, usually socially, whereas to obligate is sterner: It has a legal repercussion. I feel obliged to stay for supper; I am obligated to pay my taxes. I don't buy this distinction: In practice the words are used synonymously. Here again, obligate is a respectable, standard word that appears in dictionaries. Its first known use is 1533. But snobs prefer oblige because it is shorter.

Preventive versus preventative? The second sounds more scientific, because it is longer, but it adds nothing to the meaning of preventive. They can be used interchangeably. The snobs will tell you to use the shorter word (and I certainly prefer it). Both are established and standard.

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While we are on the subject of words that we hate, am I alone in desiring a near-total moratorium on "curate"? Not every act of selling or cooking is curation. Surely we can all resist saying that we are curating our child's culinary experience when we make him a grilled-cheese sandwich? And an algorithm that suggests movies for you based on your clicks is not a curator either. Nor is a sale rack. I feel terribly impacted by that.

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