“He’s doing THAT again?”


More language ranting.  This time I’ll start with something that’s not really “wrong” in any way, but sometimes boring can be worse than wrong.  Ask any sullen adolescent.  It makes the listener shut down, ending all communication and producing a vague irritation.

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“I don’t know many words, so I’ll use the same handful for everything.”

We all do this.  I’m the first to fess up.  It’s just laziness.  We don’t want to bother picking the right words, so we fall back on some old, comfortable, VERY well-worn ones.

If I’m sometimes accused of having a “negative” attitude, it might have something to do with how many badly, BADLY overused words of approval get thrown around.  In a way, they amount to damning with faint praise.

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“awesome”

There’s an old, apocryphal story about the filming of The Greatest Story Ever Told.  John Wayne had a cameo as a Roman soldier who, watching the crucifixion, said:  “Truly, this man was the son of God!”

Several takes were done of this line in Wayne’s usual monotone, and the director then stopped and said, “Duke, can you give me a little awe when you say that?”  The cameras rolled again, and Wayne said:  “Aaww… truly, this man was the son of God!”

The point?

Maybe Wayne was just acting the smartass, but there was a time, not long ago, when the word “awe” was
so little used that it might be believable that an actor wouldn’t know what it meant.  Advertising changed that.  A single commercial.  Some time in the late 70’s, early 80’s
there was a much overplayed car commercial.  I forgot the brand name, but the concluding line from the narrator:  “It… is… awesome!” was drilled firmly into the head of anyone who watched tv during that time.  From that time, probably, can be dated the adoption of “awesome” as a general-purpose word of high approval.

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“cool”

In my youth, “cool” had a pretty narrow set of meanings.  It was the opposite of “hot”, in the unwanted meanings of “hot”, such as “angry” or “not to be caught with”, like a hot
potato.  It simply meant “calm”, “nothing to worry about”, “not a big deal”, “friendly”.

I’m guessing that advertising had something to do with this one too, but don’t know for sure.  Somehow its meaning expanded to include anything liked, or merely tolerated, by the speaker, on up to “awesome”.  In the late 1970’s, one of my friends who had some immaturity despite his years remarked on how “cool” the coming movie with Ahnold as Conan the Barbarian would be.  This was a use of “cool” opposite to any other I had heard.  Anything glorifying machismo and violence was distinctly UNcool by my understanding.  It marks for me the point at which “cool” became another catch-all word of approval.

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“amazing”

Used to mean “confusing”, but that was long ago.  Descended to a meaning of “surprising” some time ago, and is now just another substitute for “I like it”.

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“incredible”

Since “credible” is still used in its literal sense, I don’t know how “incredible” became such a vague approval word, but that it is.  More incredible is how its adverb “incredibly” has become just a variation on “very”.

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I have actually heard someone say “incredibly unbelievable” with a straight face.

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..

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“great”

I’m guilty of this one a lot:  using “great” as an emphatic form of “good”.  I blame Tony the Tiger.

It did not always have this meaning.  It used to be a variation on “big”, with no value judgment attached.  Hitler and Stalin were great.  That doesn’t mean they were good.  This use of “great” can still be found, but now it needs to be explained because of the excessive use of its newer meaning.

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“fine”

A much, much older word-of-all-approvals that used to serve for everything from “ornate” and “nearly 100% pure” to “ok” and “cool” in the old sense.  It still survives, surprisingly, with all the competition from the above.

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“ok”

Can’t finish this section without what must be the most-used word in the world, if you count the many languages that have adopted it.  Different contexts and intonations can make it mean almost anything, and it’s become a place-holder like “mmm” or “uuh”.  What could be more meaningless?

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Well, enough with the boring habits.  Let’s get on with some real errors.

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“jerry-rigged”

An interesting composite of “jerry-built” and “jury-rigged”, both of which have meaning, but with some different shades that are lost when you combine them.

“Jerry-built” is said to date from late WWII, when the Germans were short of everything and had to improvise a lot.  It carries a connotation of fast and dirty.  Shoddy work.

“Jury-rig” is an old nautical thing.  “Jury” is from the French “jour”:  for this day.  Ships carried “jury” masts as spares in case the original got damaged.  It doesn’t mean anything
shoddy, just a “Plan B”.

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“as far as”

The phrase brings up an image that there is some distance or extent that one might go to:  “As far as I’m concerned…”, means:  “There might be a lot more for you to consider, but I’m only talking about the part that concerns me.  What I’m saying goes this far, and no further.”

When used as a direct substitute for “about”, “regarding”, or “on the subject of”, without the context making it clear that it’s a topic reduced from a much larger topic, the image is confusing.

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“decimate”

…is not a synonym for “destroy” or “wipe out”.  In its strictest sense, it means to kill or destroy one-tenth.  It was a punishment used in the Roman army for a unit that showed cowardice or mutinied.  In a broader sense, it might mean to destroy a considerable portion, but definitely not all, or anything like all.

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“hopefully”

Your roof will not hopefully last another ten years, because your roof is not a sentient being capable of having hope…

…but you can hope that it will last.

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“shrapnel”

The shrapnel shell, named after its inventor, was a very specific kind of artillery shell, used from the early 19th to early 20th centuries.  It contained a load of musket balls that broke open somewhere during the flight of the shell, producing an effect like grapeshot, but at much longer range.  It is not used nowadays.

Somehow, every idiot war correspondent got the idea that any shell fragment, or any debris thrown around by an exploding shell, is “shrapnel”.

Someone who gets hit by such stuff is, I suppose, entitled to call it whatever he damn pleases, but for the rest of us it’s
a shell fragment or debris, and has nothing to do with Mr. Shrapnel or his devilish invention..

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“with baited breath”

This must have begun as a pun on halitosis, but has somehow become the usual spelling.  Understandable when the variation “bate” for “abate” survives only in this phrase.  Better to say, “We were holding our breath while waiting.”  People know what it means.

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“point blank”

To say that a victim was shot “point blank” with a small arm conveys so little information that it really is unworthy of mention.  “Point blank” is simply the range within which the
projectile’s drop due to gravity is considered negligible when aiming at the target.  It could be anywhere from 30 feet to 100 yards or so, depending on the weapon and the size of the target.  Reporters on tv are, of course, infamous for useless words.  Be careful not to get sucked into the habits of anyone with perfect hair and teeth.  They are often indicators of evil.

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“jive with”

“Jive” has more meanings than I care to think about, mostly of unknown origin.

There is an old phrase of nautical origin, considering whether something “jibes with” something else.   It has nothing to do with any meaning of “jive” that I know of, but somehow people like to substitute the latter.

The nautical phrase makes sense:  When you change the direction of a boat, sometimes you need to jibe (i.e., move the boom, and thereby the sail, from one side to the other to agree with the new direction).  One of the first bits of jargon on which a seaman’s life might depend is “Jibe ho!”, which means:  “The boom is swinging around.  Look out that you don’t get hit by it.”

— a lesson in how important language can be sometimes.

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18 Responses to “He’s doing THAT again?”

  1. Your graphics are fabulous. The lingustic rant was music to my eyes (huh?), well you know what I mean. I am purposefully avoiding the use of the terms you mentioned, which is hard, by the way. This is a post that deserves recognition by the WordPress Overlords! Bravo!!! (Is using too many exclamation points going to appear in a future post?)

  2. felix22@sbcglobal.net says:

    Mudge,
    What a wonderful post!

    I was speaking with my youngest just yesterday about the overuse of ‘awesome’ and ‘amazing’, particularly with young people on the MTV shows my girls love to watch. Typically everyone and everything is amazing, “You’re amazing, and that’s why it hurts so much for me to tell you to get lost” or “This has been an amazing journey, and we’ve learned so many awesome things as we move on to another amazing adventure”.

    Some years back the program In Living Color satirized Mike Tyson overusing the words ‘ecstatic’ and ‘ludicrous’.

    “People say things about me that are ludicrous.I’d be ecstatic if they’d quit saying those ludicrous things. How am I feeling? I feel ecstatic.I’m so ecstatic it’s ludicrous”.

    Probably rambling too much. Nice blog, and thanks for visiting our site (roundtree7).

  3. Yeah, usage certainly ain’t what it used to be. But I notice that you’ve adopted the newfangled fad of setting commas & periods outside quotation marks, rather than the gold standard of inside the quotes. Must go lie down with cold cloth on forehead …

    • kitchenmudge says:

      Ah, yes. New rule should have come about when printing with physical type went out. Periods were set inside quotes, whether it made any sense in the quote or not, because a period stuck out by itself was in danger of getting broken in the printing process. Now the question is: “Does it make sense?”. One might still leave off the extra period or question mark to avoid a clumsy looking thing like: .”. or ?”?

    • kitchenmudge says:

      Forgot to mention: I believe this prospect of the type getting broken is also the reason for a lot of the old, less-legible fonts with big serifs at the end of each stroke. Time to go sans serif with most things.
      See:

  4. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    I’m trying, with some success, to avoid those words in my writing. However, casual conversation is a whole ‘nother matter. I get lazy and don’t make an effort to come up with an alternative to “amazing,” “incredible,” “great.” But I’m making a sincere effort to avoid using the word “awesome” for anything – even when I’m talking about a delicious chocolate donut! As far as the punctuation and quotes thing — I’m not giving up the inside quotation mark placement just yet. I’ll wait till the rest of the world catches up with the one space after punctuation convention!

    Great, I mean, instructive and amusing post!

  5. Olga SE says:

    I enjoy your language posts! Didn’t know the history of the word “awesome” and I notice that native English speakers use it a lot.

  6. whiz says:

    Why are alternatives always “viable?”

    • kitchenmudge says:

      Good question. I don’t even know whether “viable” is the right word the way it’s often used. “Workable”, “an alternative we can live with”, or something like that might make more sense than “viable”, which implies that the alternative is a living thing.

  7. Dr. Jensen says:

    I can’t tell you how often I’ve been questioned by my use of these words, such as “fantastic”, because when I do, people think I mean something is very good when I actually mean it has qualities of or relating to fantasy. :’D

  8. Pingback: EVERYTHING YOU SAY IS WRONG, CHAPTER IV | kitchenmudge

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  11. Claude says:

    I love this post. And the illustrations. I’m afraid to add a qualification!

  12. “the newfangled fad of setting commas & periods outside quotation marks”

    Newfangled on your side of the Atlantic, maybe. We Britons have been doing it for 150 years.

  13. Pingback: MORE BAD LANGUAGE | kitchenmudge

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