Wednesday, March 23, 2005


The article that follows is adapted from the editorial I have just written for Active Voice, the national newsletter of the Editors' Association of Canada, of which I am co-editor. (It's only a couple of weeks overdue.) I submit these thoughts about the state of our language for your blogging pleasure — please feel free to comment. A more typically quirky post is sure to follow soon, once I get some sleep... Enjoy! — L

Do you want to banish buzzwords? I have to admit, sometimes I do.

Back in January, Lake Superior State University published its annual Banished Words list. As I do most years, I reviewed the 2005 list with vigorous agreement.

Amid an array of US election-inspired catchphrases, this year's list features the ubiquitous über, the notorious wardrobe malfunction, the well-trod journey, and neologisms blog and webinar. Some of these coinages are indeed trite and uninspired, and while reading the list, I felt a community among sticklers for careful usage.

After all, what's at stake is nicely observed by writer and editor William Zinsser: "our love of the language's beautiful precision." Flat, soggy expressions like safe and effective, sale event, and all new diminish our ability to express ourselves by giving us clichés, pat solutions. We must guard against such vague misdirection; the LSSU list reminds us to be vigilant with our diction (as Don Miguel Ruiz would say, "impeccable" with our words).

But a line in a profile that my student, Sophie Lees, wrote got me thinking about the deeper implications of banishment. Sophie observes that, in Chinese publications, Taiwan must be referred to as a part of China; Taiwan's independence must not be suggested, or the government may censor the document — may even shut the publication down. Watching China's increasingly tense relationship with Taiwan, I know these are not idle threats — they mask a much more serious political reality, symbolized in points of phrasing.

Editors, writers, teachers, and others who care about our language may find buzzwords boring, but do we really want to banish them? And if we do, are we prepared to live with the greater implications of that attitude? Those who work with words recognize the power inherent in them; as history has shown, it takes only a few steps to move from banishing words to censoring ideas, from censoring ideas to banishing those who think them.

According to Zinsser, editors tend to be "liberal in accepting new words and phrases, but conservative in grammar." That seems like the right balance. Grammar is the necessary structure that allows us to communicate efficiently; no matter what vocabulary we adopt, we need secure syntax to carry our thoughts. We might not like über-shizzle-mastic language, but we can understand it — and then we can choose not to use it. What will our choices be if we banish words, even in play? For we know the metaphor has a lived reality in equal rights activists-cum-bra burners and freedom fighters-cum-terrorists.

I still don't like buzzwords, but I suppose they're like junk food. Now and then I can indulge. But do you think I can eat just one?

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Did ya ever wonder?

What exactly was up between Donnie Iris and Leah that their relationship was doomed?

still passing the open windows