Hell, Yes, I’m Judging You


I have a smart and popular Facebook friend named Carrie Rickey. I mention those two qualities because her status updates usually draw responses that are clever and many. That was the case recently, when she posted: “Can we please retire the word bespoke?”

One hundred thirty-eight comments ensued. A good number agreed with Carrie’s proposal; as one put it, “I think ‘bespoke’ is fine to use if you’re a British tailor. People assembling a museum exhibit can use ‘curate.’ Everyone else can get over themselves.”

Many people nominated their own candidates for linguistic banishment. One of them loaded four in a single sentence: “Our chef has curated a menu of artisanal cheeses paired with craft club sodas.”

The following terms all got some hate:

Ironic, iconic (“On the copy desk at work we long ago banned that one for anything that wasn’t discussing an Eastern Orthodox church or art exhibit”), elegiac, unpack, pivot, double down, drill down, literally when referring to something figurative, circle back, at the end of the day, woke, concerning and worrying as adjectives, problematic, gift as verb, going forward, provenance, intersectional, genius as adjective, brilliant, awesome, amazing, sentence-starting So, that being said, impactful, sanguine, branding, heinous, dystopian, twee, legendary, mega, epic, resilient, optics, weaponize, monetize, and one off.

This list is long and familiar (the links are to pieces I have written about those particular terms) but not diverse. The complainers clearly thought all of the words and expressions are heinous pieces of jargon or cliché. Beyond that, some are annoying by virtue of being neologisms (impactful, intersectional, monetize), part-of-speech pretenders (gift, genius), British imports (twee, brilliant, one off), or sneakily put forth to mean something different from what they traditionally used to (bespoke, iconic, literally, concerning).

Arguably, the complainers’ ire was legitimate. (I was actually surprised nobody nominated arguably.) The question remains, what is to be done with it? Language descriptivists, those passive-aggressive rascals, usually address this point with something along the lines of, “You’re completely free not to employ any usage that bothers you!” Well, sure, but how unsatisfying is that?

Now, to the extent Carrie’s question, about retiring (or “banning”) an offender such as bespoke, wasn’t rhetorical, the answer is no. Obviously, no mechanism for word-banning exists, but even ad-hoc efforts to shame people into forgoing words and expressions rarely work. (The exceptions to this rule are some terms that have been deemed offensive or politically incorrect and have faded away or retreated to dingy alleys.) See hopefully, a lost cause that unsurprisingly wasn’t mentioned in the 138 comments, or contact as verb — at one point derided, now put forth as the “correct” alternative to the business jargon “reach out to.”

Individually criticizing or correcting the way someone talks or writes is, well, problematic. It’s acceptable only if you’re their parent, teacher, editor, or boss, and ticklish even in those cases.

What’s left? I like what one commenter, Neil Greenberg, said in response to the “retire” query: “But … but … then how would we know we’re better than other people?”

Exactly. Judgment (shortened at some point over the years from “value judgment”) gets a bad press. It’s featured in the voguey adjective judgy and the catchphrase “Don’t judge me.” But judging is what humans do. We give a fellow member of the species the once-over, and then it’s off to the races as we invidiously peg him or her based on hairdo, clothing, tattoos or lack thereof, house décor, make and condition of car, and TV-show preferences. Language is an interesting example, since much or most of the time our choices are unconscious ones.

Tom Wolfe talked about these sorts of things as “status details.” Observing and deploying them is a central part of the project of good novelists and movie-makers, and literary journalists like Wolfe. It’s certainly what I do. Immediately after someone opens his mouth, the judging begins. Does he say “Thanks for inviting my wife and I”?  That checks a box. I feel badly? Another box. Impactful or relatable? Yet another. I understand that these usages are not “wrong” (well, except maybe for “I feel badly”), and they don’t outrage and usually don’t even annoy me, but they do lead me to categorize, pigeonhole, and judge the person who uttered them. That’s certainly the case  when it comes to the misspellings, weird wording, and excessive quotation marks and exclamation points of the president of the United States. Of course, I understand full well that others may very well judge me for carrying out such an exercise in print.

Some may think this process is inappropriate or wrong, that everybody communicates by his or her own lights, and none is better than another. I have one thing to say to these generous souls: “You’re completely free not to judge people based on language!”

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