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People Who Love Words Hate Words

A new parlor game has emerged thanks to Ben Greenman and his colleagues at The New Yorker, who recently initiated a Twitter-based game called “Questioningly.” They began by asking people to suggest a word that might be eliminated from the English language, on the theory that we have (at least) one word too many. The results of their contest were hilarious, not only because of the variety of reasons for nixing a word—triteness, political correctness, ugly sound, superfluity, misuse, sledgehammer use, arrogance, and so on—but because readers were so vehement about the need to execute a word. One proposed “God,” “because he doesn’t exist”; another “he,” to “realize how women have felt these past 20,000 years.” Through a link to Ben Zimmer’s post on a similar topic, I learned that there’s a Facebook group called “I HATE the word MOIST!” where you can go to share your wrath against slight and lingering wetness.

I’ve just returned from northern Pakistan. (When I gather my wits about me, I’ll post something about language in this fascinating albeit dangerous country.) So it’s strange to witness such strong feelings fanned, not by drone attacks or government corruption, but by words. Reading Greenman’s blog posts about the game, I began to think that if we could only muster such energy toward solving climate change or health care, we’d get somewhere. But we can will ourselves not to think about the impending doom of the planet or the economy. We cannot will ourselves not to think in—and therefore about—words.

There were disagreements of the starkest kind, as in the reader who loved “pulchritude” versus the reader who wished it eliminated. There were condemnations that I am certain have more to do with orthography than with either sound or meaning. “Phlegm,” for instance, was proposed. Since we cannot do away with the substance to which it refers, eliminating it would leave us with “mucus,” which isn’t much better. And I began to wonder if it was really the “-gm” that was the problem. If the word were spelled “flème,” for instance, would it have inspired such animosity? This question sent me, as a language nerd, to the dictionary, to discover that Middle English did spell the word as “flemme” even though it comes from the Latin/Greek phlegma, which has to do with burning. (Hm.) Which also reminded me that this odious word spawns one of my personal favorites, “phlegmatic.”

We academics and usage freaks like to think of language dispassionately. We argue prescriptivism; we explore etymology; we weigh spelling variations and punctuation quirks with the weight of our research and argument on the scales. But when I consider how Greenman’s game would draw spontaneous word-ire in just about any group of English speakers I can think of, it seems to me that our relationship to language is emotional. (I almost wrote “actually emotional,” but “actually” was suggested by so many for the chopping block that I am now censoring it.)

The final choice among the New Yorker editors was “slacks,” which was not the popular winner but bothered the judges both in its connotation—a seventies term that had overstayed its welcome—and in its sound, which Greenman quoted one slacks-hater describing as “like running your finger across polyester.” After announcing the elimination of “slacks” from the lexicon—or, more properly, from The New Yorker’s Web site for a week—Greenman was immediately subjected to a volley from “slacks”-defenders. “I am utterly indignant,” wrote one. Another: “Fie on you all.” Another argued for the use of “slacks” as a verb and proposed, “Since trousers is not a homophone, it should have been the one chosen.”

Well, I’m with them. I’d have liked to retire “sinew,” myself, which was my favorite word when I was 16 but has not worn well. I could also go for “grout.” It’s refreshing, I admit, to consider such things, now that I no longer hear gunfire at night.

 

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