I despise very few things on G-d’s green earth, and at first glance words should be no different. If I am indeed a fervent believer in balance, constantly reminding myself that every stick has two ends and stopped clocks etc., why are there still certain arrangements of English letters that make me grind my teeth, roll my eyes, stomp my hooves?
Because some words are used as clichés. The crime of the cliché (in writers’ circles, at least) is a crime of tedium. Rather than engaging the reader’s mind in the difficult process of communication through the fractured meanings of words, the cliché is little more than a placeholder, read as a blank space, conveying nothing but what the reader knows already. The net communicative effect is nil; only recollection dimly flickers when we read clichés. In short, they’re boring and should never inhabit our writing.
But the cliché is also evil. It is a particularly dangerous sort of falsehood which at once claims legitimacy by naming something and simultaneously elicits an emotional, non-intellectual response. It says, “That guy is anti-semitic; you can’t vote for him.” It never gets around to asking what an anti-semite is, or why racism is bad, or whether it is the same as bigotry or loyalty, or how bad it is in relation with other evils. All it does is push a button somewhere deep among our tangled minds’ wires that says, “Bad! Bad! Bad!”
I’m not saying we have to define terms every time we use them. It would be incredibly detrimental to all forms of communication if we had to specifically delineate the boundaries of “anti-semitism” every time we mentioned it. Besides, I have a feeling this would only go on to eventually make the words of its definition into clichés — the actual clichés we see in our day-to-day life actually work as a sort of buffer, protecting more technical/academic/intellectual language from itself draining of meaning.
Nevertheless, if we do not constantly revisit and discuss the meanings of the terms we take for granted, we can eventually attach the evil of anti-semitism (for example) to things or people innocent of that transgression, and, through so diluting its meaning, we will be unable to convince anyone of it when it does occur. (In short, if we do not work into turning clichés back into meaningful terms, the entire shared meaning which is language falls apart, and even the most skilled orators or writers are unable to recreate their thoughts in the minds of others, and civilization falls apart. In a way you’re the real hero after all, you linguistic scourge!)
The reader may be thinking, “that escalated quickly.” But at what point does a meme, a touchstone joke, become a cliché? How easy it is to stop thinking about what our words mean! I heard the joke about the chicken crossing the road parodied and retold in so many ways as a youth that the actual humor of the joke, or that it was, indeed, ever meant to be genuinely funny, did not occur to me until I was much older. The joke became only the placeholder of a joke; it became a cliché. Relatively harmless with jokes and memes, the exact same effect touches “racism” and “God”, “right” and “left,” “evil” and “good.”
So when someone says in the context of a serious discussion that they don’t want to “waste time” defining words or categories, I worry that they’re charlatans, playing the intellectual game for ulterior motives. It is the most common and most upfront way of declaring bad faith. It says that they’d prefer the alternative, where we can argue past each other, playing for rhetorical points, without actually knowing what the other person is talking about, in the simplest sense of the term. Their conclusions are probably predetermined, and they fear to find, after their words have been grounded by meaning, that they contradict themselves or are illogical. This is a valid fear.
But enough of me being crotchety. I can already see the comments about defining what “define” means hovering before my eyes, or some-such. You came here for a list, and a list you shall get! Let us turn our eyes upon five words that, like cockroaches, do not look good with the light upon them, and that, suddenly illuminated, will dart off in search of a dark, warm, comforting preconception.
(I’m mostly joking when I say the words need replacing.
It’s not the words.
It’s the thoughtlessness.)
1. “Brainwashed” — An Opportunist’s Panic Blanket
When I spoke above about folk who mindlessly wield clichés, I could have called them brainwashed. I didn’t, because it’s a vile word. Unless used in the context of some extraordinary (and I mean extraordinary — actual brainwashing is extremely rare if it exists at all) circumstance like the bowels of a North Korean torture chamber or somesuch, “brainwashing” is not merely the wrong word, it is purposefully manipulative.
Whenever I hear anyone use it, I instantly demand that they explain the difference between brainwashing and education. If they’re a real whacko or fourteen years old, they might agree that they’re the same thing, and then at least we could talk about education. But at least we’re no longer pretending that just because someone has a different view than our own, they must have been erased and rewritten by some sinister force looking to stay in power (Moriarty? The Elders of Zion? The Secretary of Education? ). Most of the time, they just disagree with you, and yes, education impacts our opinions. Byt no one wants to ban it outright.
Suggested Replacement(s): ill-informed, miseducated, ignorant, wrong, duped.
2. “Jewy” — The Latest Debacle
Not actually a cliché, but still sad, I don’t know where this word came from. It can burn in a Meah Shearim dumpster for all I care. This is the new word Jew-kids use instead of “Jewish.” What was wrong with “Jewish,” you ask? Nothing, and that’s the problem. You see, “Jewish” is merely a statement of fact, a fact that to Jews at least has no inherent negative connotations. So Jews who are feeling tired of the whole Jew thing have settled on “Jewy,” an irritating diminutive that still conveys your disgust at the concept while looking dazzling in pink. Instead of the classic “Zionist Jew greed,” Hello Kitty would say “Jewy Greed.” Doesn’t that make it sound nicer?
What? It’s worse because it’s a negative term masquerading as a neutral one? That’s crazy talk.
Suggested Replacement(s): Jewish, Jew, or your choice of honest anti-semitic epithet.
3. “Hater” — Moronic Reductionism
I don’t mind “haters gonna hate” as a pleasant song lyric or the like. But some people actually took it seriously as a life philosophy, which makes me want to individually pull out all my remaining hairs from the follicle. When you say, “Bernie for President,” and I reflect with vivid brilliance that, “I think the populist impulse driving Sanders’s momentum is similar to that of Donald Trump and neither are good for our country,” “Haters gonna hate” (“hater’s”? is it “hater (is) gonna hate” or “haters (are) gonna hate”?) is not a valid response. “Haters gonna hate” is an intellectual forfeit. To me, it’s trolling plain and simple.
First of all, hate is not necessarily a bad thing and is on the contrary incredibly appropriate and even necessary in some contexts. On the other hand, it is an incredibly powerful emotion that I think most of us feel quite rarely. To conflate disagreement, dislike, disgust, or distaste with hatred lessens the power of the term.
This image sums up the degree to which the term “haters” ought to be taken seriously, and is redolent with a multi-layered ironic aftertaste that I find quite delightful:
Suggested Replacement(s): “Dear Sir/Madam, I find it unfortunate that we diverge in our opinion on the matter; alas, would that I could argue further, but I must go on down to dat lit club wit crony and get turnt.”
4. “Nice” — The Empty Vessel
“Nice” is the ultimate cliché. It signifies nothing but utter milquetoast inoffensive blandness, and even that description makes it sounds more interesting than it is. On its own, blandness wouldn’t be so terrible. But people think it means something, like when your Rabbi has a “nice tie,” or he tells his son that peeing in the sink is “not nice.”
The obvious question is whether the tie is nice to the same degree that the boy’s urinary discretion is unnice. Of course, the tie might actually be the harbinger of a messianic utopia, since other things that I’ve heard called “not nice” include poverty, Cards Against Humanity, George Carlin, and the holocaust. This reveals the actual purpose of the term, which acts as a sort of uniform placeholder in small talk that will never hurt anyone nor, indeed, say anything.
How many times has the chivalric Jewish greeting ritual (“What’s your name?” “Tzvi.” “Where are you from?” “Oz.” “…Are you single?”) terminated with one party muttering, “Very nice, very nice”? If anyone were paying attention, they’d call you Roger Daltry. But “nice” is easier. It lets you pay no attention. It is to language what the schwa is to phonetics. It is the sound you make when you are asleep. Disgraceful.
Suggested Replacement(s): Try these.
5. “Leadership” — The Brain Taser
I eat a lot. I have a large apetite; have since I was little. Similarly, I have a sort of mind apetite. I like learning, okay? Also since I was little. But my mind apetite has these anamalistic habits, like Pavlov’s dogs. It knows what it likes and what indicates a hearty meal on the way, and what signifies intellectual junk food that will leave me hungry again in ten minutes.
One of the surest indicators that something intellectually anemic is to follow is the term “leadership.” I don’t mean as a passing mention, or even as part of a discussion of some specific action or policy. My problem begins when this benighted term shows up in advertising, or seminars, or advertising for seminars. I hate it when it’s used in businessese, that strange foreign language half of LinkedIn is written in. For me, “leadership” is representative of a whole class of words we hear so often, with so little actual meaning attached that they merely pass through our minds like white noise, chaos that grabs our attention and wrestles our critical faculty into submission through sheer force. A stun-gun to the brain that says, “Don’t even try digesting this; just give me your money.”
“Leadership” has, for most of my life, hovered on the edge of English, barely coherent, too meaningless to truly seem threatening, the employee that never says anything until he burns the building down. Maybe no one has ever bothered explaining the word to me and I’m totally off-base.
But I’ve yet to find a discussion of this term that describes a concrete reality and isn’t reaching for my wallet in some way that we’re usually too numbed to notice…
Suggested Replacement(s): Something in English.