Sunday, 12 October 2008

Terms of abuse

I've been lecturing this week on the basics of prose writing, and the importance of things like grammar, and so on. This has led me to think on the uses and abuses of certain words. At different times in history, words are abused in different ways, and some of these abuses (of course) get absorbed into common usage and eventually the dictionary. Some of the abuses, though, are quite pernicious - as both Orwell and, more recently, George Steiner have recognised, the lazy abuse of words and metaphors can be dangerous (politically, economically, socially, racially and so on). Flaubert also understood the casual misuse of words - see his "Dictionary of Received Ideas."

For what it's worth, here is my list of the top ten most abused words at the present time. I'd love to hear more suggestions too:

10. Globalisation - a strange, protean term which can be used by one person as a terrible criticism, by another as a term of endearment.
9. Devastated, devastation - how often do you hear a news broadcast which doesn't use one of these words?
8. Inclusion, inclusive, inclusiveness - often used by government bodies or arts organisations to describe activities, organisations or structures which exclude as many people as possible.
7. Racist - the core meaning - which is specific and powerful - has almost totally evaporated from the word, and it is now used as a catch-all pejorative by anyone looking for a catch-all pejorative (I have heard it used by far right-wingers, for goodness sake).
6. Terrorist - anyone whose opinions conflict with those in power, particularly if those in power have all the big guns.
5. Sex - again, a word which has been so over-used that no one's sure what it is any more.
4. Snob, elitist - nowadays, anyone who is more interested in art, music, literature than inclusivity for its own sake (i.e. anyone who is interested in art, music, literature which is "inclusive" because of quality rather than because of government diktat).
3. Forwards - everyone these days is always moving forwards, never sideways, in zig-zags, or complex fractals. God, it's boring.
2. Teams - always say in a job interview "I can work well as part of a team." No one's quite sure what working well as part of a team is. It can mean either something as uncommon as common courtesy, or, conversely, being willing to kill your colleagues whilst they're not looking - it all depends on your management style and definition of the word "team."
1. Evil - always no.1 abused term throughout history.

1 comment:

Helen Wood said...


How is it that you have worked alongside students for so long and have not picked up on the ill use of "random"...?

- Helen