Category Archives: communications

So buttons


So around the time I was realizing that Star Trek had a “some kind of” problem, I noticed that practically everyone on NPR who is  asked a question begins their answer with “So…”

Diane Rehm: Okay. But how does that adult get Toxoplasmosis?

Guest: So we know that that’s probably not the case in most cases of schizophrenia…

Robert Siegel: And I’m a lot older than you are. So I want you to tell me your encounter with the “Our Gang” comedies – when and where?

Guest: So I grew up in Los Angeles. And, you know, my parents were Korean immigrants. They worked a lot. And so my sister and I would often watch television at home in the afternoons, and often “Little Rascals” was on…

Can’t they answer the question without it? Why do they need that little word to propel their answer into motion?

So then I realized that I do it too.

But why? And when did I start doing it?  And what was I doing before I did it?

The scholars at Lake Superior State University don’t have the answers, but they do recognize the problem. They’ve put “So” at the top of their 41st Annual List of Banished Words, released today.

“So the word that received the most nominations this year was already banished, but today it is being used differently than it was in 1999, when nominators were saying, ‘I am SO down with this list!'” the list’s editors wrote in their annual announcement.

Among the other words on the list (and a few of the accompanying comments):

Conversation (CNN: Join the conversation: What’s ok to wear on a plane?)
“This word has been increasingly used by talking heads to describe every form of verbal communication known to mankind,” writes Richard Fry, of Marathon, Ont. “It has replaced ‘discussion,’ ‘debate,’ ‘chat,’ ‘discourse,’ ‘argument,’ ‘lecture,’ ‘talk’….”

Stakeholder “A word that has expanded from describing someone who may actually have a stake in a situation or problem, now being over-used in business to describe customers and others.” Adds Gwendolyn Barlow of Portland, Ore.: “Often used with ‘engagement.’”

Price Point “Another example of using two words when one will do.” “It has no ‘point.’  It is just a ‘price,’” commented Guy Michael of Cherry Hill, N.J.

Presser A shortened form of “press release” and “press conference.” To which Constance Kelly of West Bloomfield, Mich, points out: “This word already has a definition: a person or device that removes wrinkles.”

As usual, most of the comments seem unnecessarily fussy and humorless. What bothers me is not that the words have other, older meanings, but they’re used repeatedly and without thinking. And the less people think, the more desolate the public space will be.

What’s worse, that walk it back made the list (“Donald Trump walks back Muslim database comments“)? Or that the word it replaced is back-pedal?





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‘It’s all good.’ –Albert Einstein

Why do we quote others?  Specifically, why do we quote famous people? Presumably it’s to give weight to the point we’re trying to make: If you won’t take it from me, take it from Albert Einstein.

Better yet, if you won’t take it from me, you’ll take it from me if you see I’ve taken it from Albert Einstein.

Quoting Einstein is a no-brainer. School and PTA newsletters quote him all the time. The logic  here is interesting:  If what Einstein says is true (and of course it’s true, because he’s a genius), then the point we’re trying to make — about education or school spirit or the bake sale — by quoting him must also be true, and you’d be a fool to dismiss it.

Einstein, of course, wasn’t a genius about everything. And I wonder if people would fall in line behind a quotation from him about marriage or relations between the sexes the way they seem to behind “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

I found that quotation on a calendar which had something wise and pithy from somebody wise and pithy for every month of the year. It’s where I found this quote from Aristotle:  “Wit is educated insolence.”

I’m beginning to doubt that these famous, wise and deep people actually said the things that are attributed to them. Can you imagine Aristotle saying that wit is educated insolence? Could he have actually said that in Classical Greek? And if he had, did it mean the same thing as it does in modern English? Was Aristotle’s concept of wit the same as ours?

Many times quotations are used to demonstrate to the reader what a failure he is:  “A man who dares to waste an hour of time has not discovered the value of life,” the calendar quotes Charles Darwin, who must never wasted an hour of his life unlike, say, me.

“Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do,” wrote Voltaire. And I feel guilty as charged.

What Einstein is to genius, Gandhi is to virtue. And so the calendar quotes him saying, “We must become the change we want to see.” I’d probably agree if I understood what that means.

Another thing these quotations have in common is a complete absence of  humor. This makes them catnip to organizations and institutions that are trying to assert their moral authority without making any waves.

But if these men did say or write these things, perhaps they did it as hack work. Like celebrities today do commercials for the money, perhaps Emerson and Voltaire  and the others earned extra cash by penning these deep-sounding but otherwise banal one-liners.

To rise above the cheapening of the Einstein and Gandhi brands from over-exposure, we might be forced to come up with our own quotations.

Something like:  “The secret of life is no secret if we keep it to ourselves.”

“Wisdom is wise and also dumb.” Or:  “Wisdom without wis is  just dumb. (I admit, these need some work.)

“The true path to meaning is not knowing, but not knowing.”

“I would rather eat my dog than fail to help my fellow man.”

Please add yours.


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Thank you in advance for leaving a comment

Is the baby bump merely a fashion accessory?Lake Superior State University’s List of Banished Words is out a bit early, so we can all slip into 2012 imagining a world where these overused words and phrases are scarcely spoken:


Baby bump.

Shared sacrifice.



Man cave.

The new normal.

Pet parent.

Win the future.



Thank you in advance.

Maybe because of the worlds I inhabit, I’ve never heard of trickeration (from football) and pet parent. And I hadn’t realized how omnipresent amazing has become — “Many nominators mentioned [amazing’s] over-use on television when they sent their entries,” according to the LSSU webpage, “mentioning ‘reality’ TV, Martha Stewart and Anderson Cooper. It seemed to bother people everywhere, as nominations were sent from around the U.S. and Canada and some from overseas, including Israel, England and Scotland.

“Every talk show uses this word at least two times every five minutes. Hair is not ‘amazing.’ Shoes are not ‘amazing,'” Martha Waszak wrote to LSSU.

“The word has been overused to describe things only slightly better than mundane,” wrote Alyce-Mae Alexander. “I blame Martha Stewart because to her, EVERYTHING is amazing! It has lost its ‘wow factor’ and has reached ‘epic’ proportions of use. It’s gone ‘viral,’ I say! ‘I’m just sayin’!’

The outrage has grown to the point where there is now a Facebook page called “Overuse of the word ‘Amazing.’ ”

I was part of an online discussion yesterday with a guy who felt the Banished Word List is the product of an elite professoriate trying to police the speech of regular people. My impression is that nominations to the list are made by regular people, and that far from being attempts to muzzle free speech and free thought, nominations and comments are made in a lighthearted spirit. We all use at least some of these cliches. The List of Banished Words helps us hear ourselves talk, and decide whether there will be blowback, or just a response; whether we want to make another Occupy Wall Street reference, or come up with a new way to be clever; and if something is really, truly, undeniably amazing.

I wrote about last year’s list here. And I offered my own list here in 2009.

And, as they say in Public Radio Land, you’re invited to join the conversation.  (I’ll take my response off the air.)


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Drop these words.

"Standards for using 'epic' are so low, even 'awesome' is embarrassed."

The new list of banished words is out. The list is published every New Year’s Day by Lake Superior State University, in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

Here are the words and phrases which are deemed so overused as to constitute a threat to intelligent communication:

Viral, Epic, Fail, Wow Factor, A-ha Moment, Back Story, BFF, Man Up, Refudiate, Mama Grizzlies, The American People, I’m Just Sayin’, Facebook /Google (as verbs), Live Life to the Fullest.

The words and phrases are followed by comments of those who nominated them. My favorite followed “Epic”:

“Standards for using ‘epic’ are so low, even ‘awesome’ is embarrassed.” — Mike of Kettering, Ohio.

The Northwest Progressive Institute Advocate, in its blog entry on the banished words list, adds two of its own nominations: “Your call is important to us” and “partial zero emissions vehicle.” I offered my own list here in 2009.

The point of such lists is not to reveal to the world what a brittle. humorless pendant you’ve become, but to remind ourselves of basic notions of uncluttered communications, such as George Orwell set down in “Politics and the English Language” (1946).

Orwell wrote:

[O]ne needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out,  always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Now, to begin work on next year’s list. How about, “I reached out to him”? And, “Going forward.”


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Why a duck?

The Great Race

Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood stay warm in "The Great Race."

I was in the car this afternoon and turned on NPR. Bob Edwards was talking about duck hunting season coming to Louisiana, and how the avid hunters this year, crouching in their blinds or sloshing through their bayous, will come across workers cleaning up the waters from the BP oil spill.

I couldn’t help but wish I was out spending the Sunday in authentic pursuits like duck hunting in the waters of my beloved state, and not at a friend’s house, watching “The Great Race.” Once again I felt inadequate because I wasn’t an authentic man.

Then I thought I might have had it backward. I was out driving so I could be with my family and friends, watching a brilliant slapstick comedy, and why does NPR insist on larding on this authentic Americana stuff when nobody who listens to NPR  goes duck hunting anyway?

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Meet my friends.

Some of my new online friends

We tire of the wholesome appearances we make on the internet. The tally on Facebook of quiches baked, bottles of wine savored, sunsets appreciated. All opinions are positive, likes only, not even a pixel laid down that we would be ashamed of if our great-grandmother Googled and found it.

So can you blame me that in the late nights lately I’ve run with a new, rougher crowd of internet friends? I met them where all shady characters gather — in the suspect folder of my email box.

Elijah Pierre was the first. He approached me one night, looking like an elegant French biblical prophet in the flickering street light. “Use VicodinES to get rid of pain,” he said, clasping his hand to my shoulder.

We walked on. Elijah introduced me to Ahmad Roberts, whose calling card read, “Home delivery ViagraXanax Ambien.” Ervin Bower was next. We found him in a busy chat room. “Get Phentermine online!” he shouted in my direction, fighting to be heard above the noise.

Just then a young woman caught my eye.  She was like all young women — even better in my imagination. “This is Elba Sheridan,” Elijah said.

“How do you know Elijah? I asked her. She smiled coyly. “Get PercocetToday!” she replied, and shook my hand. We were joined by Elba’s roommate, Dianna C. Prince, who caught me by the arm and whispered in my ear, warm and damp, “Buy Hydrocodone online today.”

The chatroom wasn’t happening, so we caught a cab. “Let’s go to Kendall’s party,” Elba said. A wiry, goateed guy answered our knock. It was Kendall Byrne. “Need Ritalin?” he asked.  “In Need of Percocet?” a tall guy behind him said almost in response.  Everyone laughed. That was Marcelo M. Donovan, Kendall Bryne’s boyfriend of long standing.

We partied until the tail end of night. It was the first of many such jaunts to this secret place in my secret life. Each visit ends with a word of advice from Valentin Ledbetter, a Romanian descendant of the folksinger Leadbelly:  “Get a good nights rest with Ambien.”

Coming soon: “The Comic Torah”

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6 phrases I wish would go missing.

It's, well, a clicheHere are 6 phrases I’ve heard or seen enough. Feel free to add yours to the list.

1. Sweet spot.

“Working for the government is just one area in which the secretary of state hits the demographic sweet spot,” writes the Wall Street Journal.   “Green Products are the ‘Sweet Spot’ for Spending During Downtown,” says   “Finding That ‘Sweet Spot’: A New Way to Drive Innovation,”  insists Knowledge@Wharton.

2. I’m good.

Waiter: Would you like fresh ground pepper with that?

Diner: No, I’m good.

3. I’m all about / It’s all about.

Back to Wharton: “For most companies, it’s all about inventing everything yourself.”  “It’s all about superior insights and intellect. It’s not all about money and scale.”    “Facebook Announces New Homepages: It’s All About the Stream”   The church is all about Jesus Christ and his mission. Are we now guilty of moving toward an ‘It’s all about numbers’ posture?I’m all about enjoying life – whether you’re 2 or 82.”

4. How’s that workin’ for ya?

Republicans.   Eczema.   The mug.   The book.

5. Went missing/gone missing

It’s ok to use if you’re British. Otherwise, “disappear” is a perfectly good verb.

6. The “…well…” construction.

It’s often used by unsteady hands to denote humor or a light touch. (e.g. “The most expensive burgers, well, ever.”) Please let me know if you find other examples and I’ll post them.

[Addition. Let’s make it an even 7:  “Boyle’s Got Legs, Her Career … Not So Much”   “Respect for Harbaugh rises; Manny, not so much”   “Technology Changes, People Not So Much”  and an article on it all:   “Snappy? Sure. Original? Not so much“]


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