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Ditch the worn-out words
May 12, 2014
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by Ivan Raconteur

English is a rich and delightful language. It’s a shame we don’t use as much of it as we could.

The way some people use the language is a bit like having one of those 540-piece Craftsman tool sets they sell at Sears, but never using anything except the slip-joint pliers and the medium flat-bladed screwdriver.

A guy can get a lot done with a set of pliers and a screwdriver, but he can do things better if he uses the right tool for the job.

It seems to me we need to exercise our vocabulary if we want to keep it healthy.

Reading helps, particularly if we read things slightly more challenging than the cereal packet at breakfast.

Sometimes, though, the problem is not that we don’t know the right word, but we get a little bit lazy. We use the same old words, rather than thinking about what we want to communicate and choosing a better word.

This is especially true in our ordinary conversation. Ask someone how they are (which is practically a rhetorical question anyway), and he is likely to respond “fine,” or “good.”

That doesn’t really tell us much about the person’s condition. Perhaps we didn’t care in the first place (in which case, maybe we shouldn’t have asked), but if we did care, wouldn’t it be more fun to get a response that actually conveyed some sense of how the person was feeling?

We have many excellent words that could be used to do just that, but we often ignore them.

Other words are so overused that they begin to lose their meaning over time.

This is a sad process, and it is not the fault of the words, which may be perfectly good words in the beginning. The problem is, constant repetition causes us to become de-sensitized to the words, and eventually they are so watered-down that they don’t have the impact they once did.

For example, the word “amazing” is no longer reserved to describe something that fills us with surprise, wonder, or astonishment. It may be deployed to describe something that is merely unexpected, or which leaves us slightly quizzical.

Another word that has been beaten like a rented mule is “unique.”

This word once meant the only example of a thing, or something that was without equal (or at least extremely unusual).

To listen to some people talk, one might assume that “unique” is a synonym for “cute” or “appealing.”

Let’s not even contemplate those who try to create degrees of uniqueness by suggesting that one thing is “more unique” than another.

Perhaps the time has come to retire the word “awesome” from active duty, as well.

The days when awesome meant “inspiring awe,” “terrific,” or even “extraordinary” are long gone.

I have even heard it used as a sort of acknowledgement. A person might say “I don’t have to work late tonight after all,” and his companion might respond, “That’s awesome.”

Unless the first person works for an unusually demanding employer, the fact that the person does not have to work late is probably not awesome at all, although it may be convenient or perhaps pleasant if one was hoping to stop for a refreshing libation with friends after work.

The word “interesting” isn’t. Interesting, that is. Today, interesting is a platitude that is used when people can’t think of anything interesting to say about a subject.

“Great” can be used to describe something that is notably large in size or number. It can also mean something remarkable in magnitude, degree, or effectiveness.

When people refer to the Great Wall of China, they are using the word correctly. By some accounts, the entire wall, including all its branches, measures 13,171 miles. That is a great wall by anyone’s standards.

On the other hand, when someone hears the revolutionary news that the printer is fixed, and responds, “That’s great,” the value of the word “great” is diminished.

Obviously, ordinary conversation is not the same as an English exam. I suspect nearly all of us get a little bit lazy or even sloppy in our casual conversation from time to time.

Still, it wouldn’t hurt us to at least think about the words we use.

Instead of using the same old pliers and screwdriver, perhaps we could find a better tool. If we give it some thought, we can usually find a better word to convey our meaning.

Not only will this improve our communication, but it might prevent us from boring our audience, and wouldn’t that be amazingly awesome?


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