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The word

Overuse injury

Inside our long impulse to banish trendy words

By Jan Freeman
January 2, 2011

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For pop-language watchers, January marks the end of the words-of-the-year ritual that has so far given us refudiate (New Oxford American Dictionary), austerity (Merriam-Webster), and spillcam (Global Language Monitor). On Friday, members of the American Dialect Society will meet to consider the likes of vuvuzela, halfalogue, and gleek for spots on its 2010 list.

Not all the annual wordfests, however, are celebratory. Since 1976, Lake Superior State University in Michigan has been issuing a list of words and phrases to be banished “for mis-use, over-use, and general uselessness.” And though it’s hardly shocking to find that a list of peeves predates the more dispassionate collections of recent years, it made me wonder: How did word-hating become a game all Americans could play?

It all began, apparently, in the second half of the 19th century, when newspapers first compiled lists of taboo words for their own use. Journalists, of course, do have to follow house style and to avoid words their bosses deem “overworked.” It’s not clear that the average citizen has to be quite so vigilant, but usage advice was a booming genre at the time. Editors, teachers, and opinionators of all stripes found an audience eager to hear their rules and prejudices.

And once the notion of “overworked” words had spread, it was a club any writer could wield. Between 1890 and 1920, the Google News archive reveals, words accused of overexposure included crank, very, negligible, obsession, detachment, uplift, efficiency, classy, service, and the headline standbys rap, assail, attack, and flay.

In the 1920s, absolutely, dynamic, modern, and propaganda all made someone’s “overworked” list. In the ’30s, sophisticated, contact (the verb), definitely, and gargantuan got the label. In the ’40s, memorable, divine, critical, and priority were worn out; in the ’50s came fabulous, cozy, thrill, and moderation. And in the ’60s, glamour, breakthrough, and significance were called overexposed.

Some of these words no doubt were fads in the writer’s own field — sports, fashion, politics, diplomacy. But not necessarily; if you wanted to denounce obsession as overused a century ago, or critical in the ’40s, who could contradict you? There was no online corpus to check; if the reader hadn’t noticed, he could only conclude that he wasn’t as observant as the writer.

And that brings us to the second problem with all these “overworked, overused” judgments. In many cases, they’re mere excuses — not for banning a word but for using it, just this one special time. For instance, in The Saturday Evening Post, in 1920: “The overworked word ‘thrilling’ seems to belong here.” Or in the Chicago Tribune, 1939: “ ‘Gay’ and ‘charming’ are overworked words but they must be used again to describe the...flower show.” Or The New York Times, 1964: “ ‘Brilliant’ is an overworked word but it must be applied...to the premiere of ‘Don Rodrigo.’ ”

This rhetorical feint has been noted, of course, and is banned (theoretically) in the better journalistic neighborhoods. Apologetic asides like “to coin a phrase” are “manifestations of intellectual pride,” said John Bremner in his 1980 writing handbook “Words on Words.” What they say is “Look, I’m using a cliché, but I want you to know I know it’s a cliché.”

Labeling a locution “overworked” is shady in the same way: At one stroke, you condescend to others who employ it, blame lesser writers for having worn it out, and still enjoy the convenience of using it yourself. It’s a neat trick, pretending you haven’t actually “used” that hackneyed expression. But after 150 years, the ploy itself may be getting a bit threadbare.

TROLL AND TROUBLE: On the third day of Christmas, my head still echoing with carols, I realized my earworm had ambiguous lyrics: Was I supposed to troll or toll the ancient Yuletide carol?

I guessed troll, because it seemed too strange to have been made up. Troll is indeed the word, and it is strange, the Oxford English Dictionary confirms: It’s “a word or series of words of uncertain origin, and of which all the senses do not go closely together.” They aren’t kidding: It means to “saunter about,” to “cruise” for pickups, to roll or spin, to fish, and to ring a bell in “a recurring cadence of full, mellow tones.” And, yes, to sing “in the manner of a round or catch; to sing in a full, rolling voice; to chant merrily.” So bells and voices have both been trolling for some 400 years.

Long before they trolled, though, large bells could be tolled, or made to “give forth a sound repeated at regular intervals.” Add the recent verb troll meaning “post provocative comments online” — linked to troll “to fish,” but also, as a noun, understood as a relative of the (unrelated) word for a Scandinavian imp — and it’s no wonder people might decide they’d rather toll or trill or just plain sing that Yuletide carol. Fa la la! (Next year: Deck the hall, or deck the halls?)

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is mailtheword@gmail.com; she blogs about language at Throw Grammar from the Train (throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com).