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J.A.A. Purves

Words & Phrases Banned from Your Vocabulary

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On that note, if anyone sees this I'm curious about pronouncing foreign words in an English language context, especially ones that everyone technically mispronounces. I don't think forte is an example of this - yet.

Sometimes I catch myself stumbling over words/phrases whose languages I've studied, even slightly, because it's hard to Americanize the pronunciation like I think I should. But then I have a friend who works with monastic texts who will correct the pronunciation of the few Latin words I even use. I'm not sure he's serious but if I complied I think no one would understand me. I don't have fixed ideas about correct pronunciation, but I wondered if anyone else did?

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An aside: I'm listening to the eaudio edition of Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, and the narrator just read a mention of Redskins special teams coach Wayne Sevier. I live in the D.C. area, and all Redskins fans know the last name is pronounced "Severe," but the narrator gave the name a French spin, pronouncing it "Sev-ee-ay."

That spin on the name of rough-and-tumble Wayne Sevier makes me laugh.

Carry on.

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I may have tuned it out 'til now, or maybe this is a new thing, but my boss says "it is what it is" at least six or seven times during the work day. Really? Are you sure it's not what it isn't?

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Thought of some more: I have a love-hate relationship with academic-speak. I mean, I love it because...well, it's fun (academics aren't supposed to say that, but there's something about the way a phrase like "constitutive gap" rolls off the tongue). But I hate it because it's so easy--not to do well, but to do, viz. "The cumulative effect of this sort of double-signification causes the reader to transverse his own fantasy and discover the discursive techniques...yadda yadda yadda." I realized this about the time I noticed that my boiler-plate EN101 syllabus contains the phrase "discourse communities." Since then, I've been noticing it more and more: "X texts inscribes upon Y in interesting ways," etc. So sometimes--about half the time--I find myself wishing the whole discourse community would take an Emersonian approach to language:

Hundreds of writers may be found in every long-civilized nation, who for a short time believe, and make others believe, that they see and utter truths, who do not of themselves clothe one thought in its natural garment, but who feed unconsciously on the language created by the primary writers of the country, those, namely, who hold primarily on nature.

But wise men pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things; so that picturesque language is at once a commanding certificate that he who employs it, is a man in alliance with truth and God. The moment our discourse rises above the ground line of familiar facts, and is inflamed with passion or exalted by thought, it clothes itself in images. A man conversing in earnest, if he watch his intellectual processes, will find that a material image, more or less luminous, arises in his mind, cotemporaneous with every thought, which furnishes the vestment of the thought. Hence, good writing and brilliant discourse are perpetual allegories. This imagery is spontaneous. It is the blending of experience with the present action of the mind. It is proper creation. It is the working of the Original Cause through the instruments he has already made.

See also this review of Stylish Academic Writing:

Academics in the humanities and the social sciences, it’s sometimes suggested, too often wish to give their fields the legitimacy and public authority of science, and so write in highly technical, jargon-laced prose. Academics in the hard sciences, for their part, are too concerned with factual correctness to worry about making their productions agreeable, even to co-specialists. Then, of course, there is the really uncharitable interpretation: Many academics simply haven’t got anything useful to say, but if they say it in a sufficiently complicated fashion and use all the vogue terms, they’ll get credit for having said something without saying anything worth defending. The really troublesome thing about all this is that many academic writers, even in the humanities, have legitimate and important insights to convey.

The other half of the time, though, I revel in it. Like I say, if you can get away with using a phrase like "constitutive gap" it's a real buzz. And, of course, academic lingo does do real work, sometimes.... And, as per the Fry clip, the words you use are like clothes; sometimes it's appropriate to say "bro" and sometimes it isn't--and wisdom lies in knowing the difference.

Still, if I could, I would probably banish "inscribes on" and all variants thereof when used w/r/t texts.

Edited by NBooth

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I don't think I would say 'Sev-ee-ay' unless the man was French. . . . I hope not.

" I have a love-hate relationship with academic-speak. I mean, I love it because...well, it's fun (academics aren't supposed to say that, but there's something about the way a phrase like "constitutive gap" rolls off the tongue). But I hate it because it's soeasy--not to do well, but to do . . . . "

I envy the fluency, and the pleasure. I've never come close to either and that may be why I'm not a real academic, even though I do like teaching literature!

For me the draw of academia has always been the basic encounter between the reader or viewer and the piece of art. At heart I'm a simple, traditional close-reader. So my ideal writing happens in fiction - novels and poetry and film - and second in essays and journalism. I want academic language to take its cues from those genres, especially the lit. that in my case, it's all about. I definitely want it to lean Emersonian.

I mostly escaped academic-speak till grad school, where I'd to read masses of theory for MA & PhD comps. I think I became mildly allergic, even to the 'readable' theorists. The worst are my definition of bad writing. Reading them is like playing chess with lead weights or wading kneedeep through sand. I'm convinced the deadweight's not in service of meaning, it's a product of bad writing: Hydra-like syntax & flourishes. Some insights *are* profound & there's a perverse satisfaction in unspooling them if you like intellectual rigor, but I agree with the 2nd quote. In ot her disciplines, hard thought does'nt preclude intelligibility. Philosophy prose can be very austere; the ideas are already complex enough.

Probably anyone who's ever studied or taught in unis. has read their share of vacuous, derivative writing.

But my real problem iwth that style is very subjective. This morning the metaphor of something getting in your eye in a David Lean film reminded me of a moment in an Edith Wharton novel when a character steps out of a carriage & it's so cold that his tears freeze on his eyelashes and in both narratives, so much is compressed in these metaphors. In the end they're the sole expression of this great welling up of grief and renunciation. I love those kinds of echoes & I can't press them into a readymade formula. If I were a 'discourse communities' person I would be more clever and sophisticated but I'm not sure I'd see them , because I'd begin at the other end: with a set of possible approaches I would try on my text for size.

Most of what I've written here probably doesn't belong in these forums, let alone this thread . . . . which is another kind of bad writing . . .but anyway, despite my phobia, there are those who use the academic jargon really, really well. I'm just not one of them!

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I got an email today that implored me to "call ASAP or sooner."

I still haven't called because I can't figure out what that means.

Something like "Come at once if convenient. If inconvenient, come all the same."?

EDIT:

The worst are my definition of bad writing. Reading them is like playing chess with lead weights or wading kneedeep through sand.

Or playing lead-weighted chess while wading through sand....

Edited by NBooth

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I got an email today that implored me to "call ASAP or sooner."

I still haven't called because I can't figure out what that means.

Something like "Come at once if convenient. If inconvenient, come all the same."?

But I can at least make an argument for your example as witty phrasing.

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... my boss says "it is what it is" at least six or seven times during the work day ...

I have a couple friends who say this on a regular basis. It's an abomination of a phrase that one easily learns to hate.

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... my boss says "it is what it is" at least six or seven times during the work day ...

I have a couple friends who say this on a regular basis. It's an abomination of a phrase that one easily learns to hate.

I view it as the "politically correct" way to say "shut up and just do it!" to those who like to raise continual and pointless objections. I can see it being easily overused though.

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I don't know whether there is "right" and "wrong" language, but I'm quite sure there is more useful and less useful language, beautiful language and ugly language. When most of the people speaking or writing in a language are careless about it, they take some of the joy of it away for everyone else.

Yes, agreed.

I'll add "YOLO."

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I got an email today that implored me to "call ASAP or sooner."

I still haven't called because I can't figure out what that means.

It means you should have called before you got the email... duh!

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Thought of some more: I have a love-hate relationship with academic-speak. I mean, I love it because...well, it's fun (academics aren't supposed to say that, but there's something about the way a phrase like "constitutive gap" rolls off the tongue). But I hate it because it's so easy--not to do well, but to do, viz. "The cumulative effect of this sort of double-signification causes the reader to transverse his own fantasy and discover the discursive techniques...yadda yadda yadda."

I hear you on this, though I hope -- I really do hope -- that people who write in the kind of jargon you describe (I assume you're referring to literary theory in particular, which, maybe fortunately, I'm not all that familiar with) are really intending to write about something real, not just sound cool or smart. (God knows it often seems they're putting us on....I've used the Philosophy & Literature Prize for Bad Writing website several times for examples to show my students.)

I try to be charitable and assume that when specialists use impenetrable jargon, it is because they are talking about something that really means something to them, and that I don't get it because I'm not a member of the community -- the same way I don't really get what the guys are talking about at the place where I get my oil changed. I've finally gotten to a point where I can read most texts in my field without stopping to realize how ridiculous they must sound to outsiders ... I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing.

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A possibly relevant anecdote. Tonight, in my continuing quest to graduate from college, I've been reading a journal article on a topic in colonialism and "science studies" - one of those ones described by everything that starts with "post," you know the type - and for much of the time I was extremely frustrated with its language, which was like a satire of the worst of academic writing. A sample: Two authors being discussed "share a common oppositional stance to floating assumptions framing modernity. Both seek to limit the advantage of the favored element within binary pairings, and recognize the importance of replication within power...Where X wishes to make asymmetries visible within shared categories and posits equality as an anti-colonial ideal, Y wishes to make symmetries visible within separated categories, and posits a form of equality as a methodological principle."

I'm sure none of us approves of this sort of thing. This is what they warn students about in composition classes: super-literacy run amok, a nightmare vision of polysyllables gone wrong. While I often consider academic writing rather beautiful in its way, when it's this extreme it's clearly irredeemable.

But eventually as I read, something strange seemed to be happening. The early parts of the article remained needlessly difficult, but eventually a certain lucidity began to emerge, and the convoluted expression from the unreadable introduction somehow became an adequate vehicle for conveying satisfying ideas. Near the end, the conceptual framework completed, it seemed that the author now felt free to become human. Unless the article had dazed and hypnotized me (which is possible), the writing even began to attain something like beauty. "Rather, it lingers on, even beyond the planet, amid the faint beckoning glow of the stars. To move out invites another form of return, a passage forward through the very pasts we might think we are leaving behind." I'm not saying this made the bad parts worthwhile, because it clearly didn't. Nevertheless, it was like passing from death to life. And this sort of thing isn't too uncommon.

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I try to be charitable and assume that when specialists use impenetrable jargon, it is because they are talking about something that really means something to them, and that I don't get it because I'm not a member of the community -- the same way I don't really get what the guys are talking about at the place where I get my oil changed.

When I start fuming about "discourse communities," I tell myself the same thing. I'm not a compositionist except by necessity, it's not my field, etc etc etc. And I do think of language as a took-kit; you use whatever works best for whatever you're trying to do. But I've not reached the point yet where the language of literary criticism sounds totally natural (I know a professor who has; his everyday conversation is laced with quotes from Barth and Benjamin and a whole raft of other letters on down through the alphabet).

A possibly relevant anecdote. Tonight, in my continuing quest to graduate from college, I've been reading a journal article on a topic in colonialism and "science studies" - one of those ones described by everything that starts with "post," you know the type - and for much of the time I was extremely frustrated with its language, which was like a satire of the worst of academic writing. A sample: Two authors being discussed "share a common oppositional stance to floating assumptions framing modernity. Both seek to limit the advantage of the favored element within binary pairings, and recognize the importance of replication within power...Where X wishes to make asymmetries visible within shared categories and posits equality as an anti-colonial ideal, Y wishes to make symmetries visible within separated categories, and posits a form of equality as a methodological principle."

I'm attracted and repelled at the same time....

But eventually as I read, something strange seemed to be happening. The early parts of the article remained needlessly difficult, but eventually a certain lucidity began to emerge, and the convoluted expression from the unreadable introduction somehow became an adequate vehicle for conveying satisfying ideas. Near the end, the conceptual framework completed, it seemed that the author now felt free to become human. Unless the article had dazed and hypnotized me (which is possible), the writing even began to attain something like beauty. "Rather, it lingers on, even beyond the planet, amid the faint beckoning glow of the stars. To move out invites another form of return, a passage forward through the very pasts we might think we are leaving behind." I'm not saying this made the bad parts worthwhile, because it clearly didn't. Nevertheless, it was like passing from death to life. And this sort of thing isn't too uncommon.

Indeed. Most of the time, when I approach a critical text, it takes me a few pages to really settle into it. Honestly, though, I don't think hypnosis is a bad analogy (or a bad thing, in itself). It reminds me of Faulkner, in a way (though...I wouldn't call the above-quoted bad sentence Faulknerian in either a positive or a negative sense): it takes some time to fall into the rhythms. Eventually the language gathers into itself a weird sort of power and becomes much more lucid. (Of course, in this case [not having read the article], I'm thinking you're right--the author clearly had to get the critical stuff out of the way before getting to the fun stuff, and so powered through the first bit in a mechanical way).

Sometimes I wonder if the difference between "bad" word use and "good" word use isn't self-awareness; if someone used the phrase "metanarrative" constantly and unironically (and that's another phrase, like "worldview," that kind of irks me), I'm inclined to think they are relying on the word as if it has a meaning in itself. Which it doesn't; like most words, it's an empty signifier (pace Emerson). But if you carefully unpack it (nah, "unpack" is another phrase that needs to die)--if you carefully define it, use it sparingly, and with the awareness that the word (as a word) doesn't really say anything--then the use of the word is redeemed....

It's not universally true. YOLO can probably never be redeemed (though I've thought of creating an American Authors "YOLO" series--"I lived two years in a house I built with my own hands. YOLO." "I celebrate myself. YOLO." Etc.) But even in those cases, context would be everything, no?

Edited by NBooth

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Indeed. Most of the time, when I approach a critical text, it takes me a few pages to really settle into it. Honestly, though, I don't think hypnosis is a bad analogy (or a bad thing, in itself). It reminds me of Faulkner, in a way (though...I wouldn't call the above-quoted bad sentence Faulknerian in either a positive or a negative sense): it takes some time to fall into the rhythms. Eventually the language gathers into itself a weird sort of power and becomes much more lucid. (Of course, in this case [not having read the article], I'm thinking you're right--the author clearly had to get the critical stuff out of the way before getting to the fun stuff, and so powered through the first bit in a mechanical way).

Sometimes I wonder if the difference between "bad" word use and "good" word use isn't self-awareness; if someone used the phrase "metanarrative" constantly and unironically (and that's another phrase, like "worldview," that kind of irks me), I'm inclined to think they are relying on the word as if it has a meaning in itself. Which it doesn't; like most words, it's an empty signifier (pace Emerson). But if you carefully unpack it (nah, "unpack" is another phrase that needs to die)--if you carefully define it, use it sparingly, and with the awareness that the word (as a word) doesn't really say anything--then the use of the word is redeemed....

Yes. Relatively few words are completely beyond the pale. Probably the only ones I would argue should never be used at all are the ones that can always have a more sensible word substituted for them. I don't see how any respectable person could have any use for "nexus," for example, and "hegemony" is borderline. But the metathingies and problematizations and the various communities and structures and constructs can sometimes be used to say things worth saying, that without them couldn't be said as efficiently. The problem with their overuse (besides the fact that it makes for ugly writing) is that they can so easily disguise a lack of clear thought, or sometimes any thought. Also, many of them are used for talking about talking rather than talking about real things. This means they can easily wind themselves into narcissistic loops where words chase other words in circles and literally nothing is said. This vocabulary was designed, in many cases, to escape reality and deny the existence of truth, and that's what it does best.

Richard Dawkins (yes, that Richard Dawkins) wrote an article on this subject that's very much worth reading.

diss, dope, homie, word, pimpin are not cultural orphans. they're from urban hip hop, and if I'm not mistaking, are the very essence of slang.

I guess I can grant that. Except that now they've been appropriated out of hip hop culture and used relentlessly by the white, middle-class world of "bros" and internet addicts.

Agreed. Those words are horrible except when speakers come by them honestly.

I don't know whether there is "right" and "wrong" language, but I'm quite sure there is more useful and less useful language, beautiful language and ugly language. When most of the people speaking or writing in a language are careless about it, they take some of the joy of it away for everyone else.

Yes, agreed.

I'll add "YOLO."

You obviously like owls.

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SDG, your comments here triggered something in my memory, and sure enough, it turns out we've discussed "forte" and "pianoforte" before, here.

Ha. How about that. Either I missed that or I didn't know the answer at the time. So now we know. :)

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Or playing lead-weighted chess while wading through sand....

Yes. And those idioms were probably inspired by post-structuralist & postcolonial theory.

c.f., this sentence from Homi Bhabha won 2nd place in Philosophy and Literature's Bad Writing Competition":

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.

And from the same Wikipedia entry:

Emeritus professor of English at Stanford University, Marjorie Perloff, said that her reaction to Bhabha's appointment at Harvard was one of "dismay," telling the New York Times "He doesn't have anything to say." While Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media studies at New York University, commented on the meaning of Bhabha's writing: "One could finally argue that there is no meaning there, beyond the neologisms and Latinate buzzwords. Most of the time I don't know what he's talking about."

At the time I was reading him I felt Bhabha had a great deal to say. I even saw a link between form and content. But I never shook a deeper frustration. So much of academic theory is finally about theory, about its own gestures rather than art or culture or the material, sentient world. In terms of style, it can seem to parody its subjects: performative-ness or the collapse of meaning . . . I think that's behind the emptiness some of us find there, not that it has nothing to say, but that its revelations leave us cold. Bhabha's writing is less awful than the BWC sentence (intensely cumulative, meaning depends on context) . It's also *more* horrible for the exact same reason. You hang onto a dizzying array of subordinate pieces, bog down in a sentence that might be essential to what comes next. At the same time, lest your brain implode you have to let it slip into soft focus, let that syntax wash over you and trust that meaning is imminent. It is hard work. Yet even with Bhabha, I did experience this:

Unless the article had dazed and hypnotized me (which is possible), the writing even began to attain something like beauty.

I wasn't hypnotized or punch drunk. If you read long enough, there truly is a magisterial, swirling beauty - almost a beauty of the Baroque.

I try to be charitable and assume that when specialists use impenetrable jargon, it is because they are talking about something that really means something to them, and that I don't get it because I'm not a member of the community -- the same way I don't really get what the guys are talking about at the place where I get my oil changed.

I remember taking Astronomy as a lab requirement & out of the blue, being entranced by the lecture part of the course. It opened a new dimension of idiom and metaphor. It enlarged my sense of Psalm 19. I can't put my finger on the difference between 'good' jargon - argot, I suppose - and 'bad'.

I'm not saying this made the bad parts worthwhile, because it clearly didn't. Nevertheless, it was like passing from death to life. And this sort of thing isn't too uncommon.

This whole post struck me because I recognize what you describe so well. Not just in academic writing but contemporary ficiton - the plain, lyric voice emerging from elegant, studied prose. Maybe criticism does take cues from literature . . . .

I think it's partly an effect of close perusal.

Beauty is so enmeshed in understanding. If you've ever done translation, especially poetry, you are reading and re-rendering text minutely - reducing art almost to isolable strokes upon a page. Yet even if painstaking focus hides it from you, beauty is gathering. Maybe reading difficult academic writing is a bit analogous.

Even more, I think it's about deferral and contraposition.

Ishiguro is exemplary for me, coz nearly all his novels cling to a pretense of immunity - a suppression of emotion in the face of tragedy - which is very painful to read. Beyond the characters, the narrative voice is decorous and evasive. You are waiting and waiting for the simple confession: this hurt me, this broke my heart. When it finally comes, it's far more intense for being so long withheld.

Something similar happens in music, and in film . . . or the combination of musica nd film. I can't think of a good cinematic example, except maybe the massacre in Little Big Man. For me, that sequence is astonishingly moving and sorrowful. I think it's the shock of delicacy and realism in an otherwise goofy, picaresque satire. Even though it's highly crafted it feels unadorned - like the mask of comedy is set aside and the film allows itself an interlude of purity & pathos.

When clear words emerge in that quoted text, I think they seem more human and lovely because the rest is unwelcoming - because the 'I am a real person trying to reach you' form of address is so often subdued in academic writing. Anyway, I love the metaphor, the 'passing from death to life'.

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Since we took a swing to the academic here, this might be the place to share a nice little article I just read:

Silly Theory

More particularly, I'm thinking of this paragraph, which speaks to the tension between jargon and plainspeak:

[A]cknowledging the silly in theory challenges not only the in-speakyness of theoretical jargon, which takes theory too seriously, but also the kind of demotic counter-snobbery, which dismisses theory out of hand for being too difficult. Those stationed irretrievably far into the anti-difficulty camp tend to suppose that plain speech and realist genres count as neutral representations. The problem with this line of thinking is that the generic claims of normative realism, consequential though they may be, are little more than claims that representation ought to be banal. That is, the inverse of imagining that theory is too difficult tends to be imagining that what often counts as more normal is therefore more true, as though our culture’s clichés—houses with white picket fences, politicians who tell it to you straight, beauty accentuated by its flaws, or career women who have it all—circulate in representation first and foremost because they really and unproblematically exist for some statistical majority. In fact, these clichés are as made up as Monique Wittig thought women’s bodies were—which is to say, totally.

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the figurative use of "literally"

"like" used as slang

"friend" used as a verb

 

Those are my big three.

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Looking back over this thread, I thought this warranted a quick comment.

Also, impact is a noun.

 

I use "impact" as a noun. But I draw the line at "impactful."

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"friend" used as a verb

Do you know anyone who does this when not discussing Facebook? I don't see much reason to object to it in that context, as an efficient term for a very specific action.

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