Defining Moments

Annoying words and phrases

sprovost@thetribunenews.comJanuary 15, 2013 

Late last year, the folks at Marist University revealed the results of a poll identifying the most annoying words of 2012. The winner was (drumroll, please) “whatever.”

I approve. The term, often employed in conjunction with a turned-up nose, a cold shoulder or a toss of the head, is rude and dismissive. Nearly a third of people responding to the poll didn’t like it, and I can’t blame them. The word is really just the first word in an unspoken message that goes something like this: “Whatever you’re saying, it doesn’t matter to me.”

Certainly, one can find far better uses for this word. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Whatever your life’s work is, do it well.” I like that. Or consider this quote attributed to Gautama Buddha: “Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care, for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.” That’s a much better use of the word, and an appropriate one for this column.

The use of “whatever” as a synonym for the equally annoying “talk to the hand” is an awful waste of a perfectly good word. I find it far more irritating than the second- and third-place words on the Marist list, both of which are often used to fill small gaps between words in spoken language: “like” and “you know.” These may be signs of laziness or insecurity, but I’ll take either of those traits over rudeness any day.

Next on the list in order are “you know,” “just sayin’,” “Twitterverse” and “gotcha.”

What’s interesting to me is that most of those words and phrases are hallmarks of spoken — as opposed to written — language. That tells me a couple of things: We’re not reading enough, and we’re not writing enough. You won’t generally find phrases such as “you know” and “just sayin’” in written communication, unless some novelist places them in the mouth of a character. When that happens, they’re still spoken words, they just happen to be spoken by fictional folks and set down in writing by their creator — the author.

Personally, when I think of annoying words and phrases, I think of things I’ve read — not things I’ve heard. Being a writer and a reader, I suppose that’s perfectly natural. My list, therefore, is a lot different than Marist’s.

For one thing, I’m tired of reading the word “authorities.” Who are these authorities, anyway, who has decreed that they’re authorities and what precisely are they authorities on? If you’re writing about police, why not just say police? Elected officials? Same thing. And so forth with firefighters, scientists, economists, etc.

One of the first rules of good writing is to be specific. Vague terms such as “authorities” and “facilities” irk the heck out of me.

Another of my pet peeves this year was the seeming omnipresence of the term “double down.” Every time I turned around, someone new (usually a politician) was doing it. I thought I’d been transported to Las Vegas and forced to sit at the blackjack table until these politicians figured out how much of their constituents’ good faith to wager on their own intransigence.

For similar reasons, I grew tired of hearing about gridlock, standing your ground and approaching the so-called fiscal cliff. It seemed that, more and more in 2012, people seemed to view issues in terms of absolutes. The world seemed to have been remade in black and white. But where’s the fun in that? If I’m forced to live in a black-andwhite world, I’d rather watch “I Love Lucy” than “The Situation Room.”

But then again, I’d rather read than watch TV anyhow. I can handle black and white when it refers to ink on a page.

I’m sure there are some words and phrases that get your goat, too. Send them my way, together with a short explanation of why they bother you. If I get enough of them, I’ll feature them in a future column. Email me at sprovost@thetribunenews.com .

Steve Provost is a Tribune copy editor.

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