Thursday, December 31, 2009

Look Out! That Word's Been Banned!

Reuters today reported on some overused and icky terms that are now "banned."

Think "sexting," "unfriended," and any compound including the word "czar."

The Reuters piece is extremely informative -- not for what it says but for how it says it. You see, the headline tells us that several words are "in U.S. banned words list." Then the first paragraph says:

"Fifteen particularly over- or misused words and phrases have been declared 'shovel-ready' to be 'unfriended' by a U.S. university's annual list of terms that deserve to be banned."

Setting aside the all-around weirdness of this sentence, what interests me is its use of the passive "have been declared" to downplay rather important matter of: By whom? Who the hell has "banned" these words? Who thinks they have that authority? And who can get Reuters to treat them as though they have that authority?

Those are the types of questions that journalists like to draw attention away from because they make for much less-interesting articles.

"These words are banned, according to an annual list published by a U.S. university" seems to carry a lot more weight than ,"A U.S. university says that these words are banned."

And only after reading all that do we learn that the self-appointed word-banning czar isn't even one of the nation's best-known or most respected, though Lake Superior State U. now gets my vote for the most media-savvy.

Back when I was a reporter, I used to pull the same trick: Play up the implications, play down their validity. And if I didn't, my editors would do it for me. It's just how news works. And my guess is that readers are getting wise to this brand of sensationalizing.

So, while this brand of spin isn't necessarily so awful, the Reuters story nonetheless offers a "teachable moment" that makes me wonder whether media spin is a "toxic asset" calling for a "news czar" to declare such news stories "shovel-ready."

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Joel said...

Did we ever talk about the "12 Words You Can Never Say in the Office"?


I'm still vacillating on this whole business, but one thing for sure is that if these folks are taking themselves at all seriously, they're just another--and particularly annoying--class of snobs and they should be taken out and tweeted repeatedly across their facebooks until they're shovel-ready.

Maybe part of my problem is that this is a fun conversation among friends, but when you put it out there in the media, it just sounds sanctimonious and snarky and pathetically-ironically trendy--yet somehow simultaneously out-of-touch.

Don't get me wrong, I find some of the tagged expressions annoying and distasteful, but no more so than the crowd that insists on declaring them unfit. And I find in their judgment a pathetic attempt to control a language that's way beyond their depth. I've no doubt that much of what is presently grating to the ear will mellow with age or perhaps find some new partnering that conjures harmony out of its erstwhile cacophony, just as one hopes will happen with (these?) adolescent humans.

June Casagrande said...

I like to believe that readers are becoming less susceptible to these types of "news" reports.

Back when we weren't inundated with so much information, we might see a story about how "proactive" is a no-no and actually believe it's a no-no. But in a time when countless media outlets sensationalize information just to compete for our attention, readers may be getting wise.

Somehow it reminds me of that old line from "This Is Spinal Tap" when Michael McKean's character says, "I believe virtually everything I read, and I think that is what makes me more of a selective human than someone who doesn't believe anything."

Not sure the connection. Just reminded me is all.

Yes, I remember those "words you can never say in the office." What a load.

Hopefully, these types of "news" stories are going the way of the sitcom.

. said...

Hi June! I've been meaning to ask you about this line from Cormac McCarthy's "The Road": "The snow fell, nor did it cease to fall." It really stopped me in my tracks; I'd never heard a sentence quite like it. What do you think? Personally I love it, but then I approve the flouting of grammar laws for creative purposes.


June Casagrande said...

The real question is: What would I think of it if I didn't know it was McCarthy?

I'm incapable of being objective. I think such McCarthyisms are downright brilliant.

I don't remember that sentence. Wish I'd have noted it sooner. My next book, coming out in July, is about writing good sentences. I use several McCarthy examples, one specificaly to show how a pro can break the rules to brilliant effect.

Wish I'd have had this one on my radar.

Mallory said...

I do appreciate how McCarthy breaks the rules. It just somehow makes sense when he does it. I watched his interview wtih Oprah and he said something like, "good writing requires little punctuation." Authors who get it wrong though? So irritating! I tried to read A Million Little Pieces by James Frey and he gets it all wrong. I couldn't even finish the book. His style is so self-conscious and he tries way too hard to be clever.

June Casagrande said...

I LOVE that McCarthy line about punctuation! Great stuff.

I never tried to read "A Million Little Pieces." The non-truth-as-truth thing offends my inner journalist.

Nice to know that he gets the art all wrong, too!


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