Lazy Word Choice

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Thanks to today’s instant communication, words used by one blogger or celebrity catch on at an astounding rate, spilling over into advertising, entertainment, and website comments.

One evening I became aware of two television ads airing back to back. One was for a telephone service; the other for a car. Both hammered the word crazy to describe features of their products: “crazy, crazy generous, crazy efficient, crazy protection.”

This mindless kind of usage strips words of meaning. It wastes the power of words that have more appropriate uses. Take this headline, for example:

Daylight Saving Time Is America’s Greatest Shame

Shame can be used in more than one sense, including a fairly meaningless social convention: “It’s a shame you couldn’t join us for dinner.” Used as it is in the headline, however, shame is a strong word, calling up images of the Indian removals known as the Trail of Tears, the WWII internment camps for U.S. citizens of Japanese descent, and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments that used untreated black Americans as a control group.

Daylight Saving Time may be a fraud. It may be annoying, unnecessary, disruptive or any number of disagreeable things, but is it really “America’s Greatest Shame”? Sometimes the intended purpose of a piece of writing calls for deliberate misuse of words. Advertising and political speeches come to mind.

We live under a constant verbal barrage. It’s impossible to ignore the catch phrases of our culture. They enter our minds and speech. If we are writers, they creep into our first drafts. Happily, we can replace poorly chosen words as we revise.

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8 thoughts on “Lazy Word Choice”

  1. Couldn’t agree more with this essay. My least favorite, popular word, is “amazing.” Really? Are you really amazed but this trivial? Are your average children truly amazing? Your sandwich? The word is so overused.

    Please don’t use my name. I would be amazingly embarrassed.

  2. I have to agree, adding my dislike of the overuse of the words like “crazy”, “shame”, “torment”, etc. Maybe a title line says “Justin Bieber’s greatest torment.” Well, Justin Bieber was not in the Bataan Death March or a Nazi concentration camp.

    I am inclined to cut a lot of slack to people who use “amazing” because I am one of them, and I started it during the early 1970s. At least, I started it before it became a word “en vogue”.

    Also, there is something that I have read about. Back in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, there were several monthly science-fiction magazines with titles like AMAZING STORIES, ASTONISING, and ASTOUNDING. These were magazines where notable writers got there starts in publishing and earning modest amounts of money. (The going rate was one cent per word in a published short story or novella.) These notable writers included Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Lester del Rey, L. Sprague de Camp, Robert Silverberg, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

  3. To Carol Palmer:
    Sorry, but I think that you have made a typographical error, and I cannot figure out what the sentence is supposed to say:
    “Are you really amazed but this trivial?”

  4. Amen!

    One of the things that bugs me most about this is when newspapers look to make their headlines more sensational by using emotive words (like “shame” in the example above). These words are, in real terms, misleading and don’t report the facts. Shame as used above might be forgiven as an unwitting misuse of the word by someone who doesn’t know better.

    In England, there is very keen interest in football (soccer to our American cousins). Passions run high. Then the papers come along and stoke the fires with headlines like “Fans’ fury at XYZ” or “Smith insists team will win”, etc.

    Oh Smith insisted, did he? He said his piece, then he said it again, and again? And then once more? Then he repeated it to make sure you heard it?

    More like he mentioned it once – “Yes, I think we’ll do well”. In passing…

  5. To Rob:
    Oh, I surely do agree in detesting the overuse (and misuse) of such verbs as insisted, declared, and proclaimed, and the adjectives “devastated” and “furious.

    Whatever happened to these words in the newspapers and the tabloids? {upset, saddened, perturbed, irritated, morose, sad}
    Also, how do you Britons say it? “Ticked off.”?

    American tabloids must “love” saying that Queen Elizabeth is “furious” about this or that. They make her seem like the Wicked Witch of the East, or the Queen from ALICE IN WONDERLAND. “Off with his head!” she says!

  6. These are – by way of celebrities’ mouths, TV ads or whatever – fads that may or may not survive the passage of time. There are some, however, that through sheer overuse tend to stick. For instance “awesome” (which is another “shade” of “amazing”, I think) to express rather admiration and wonder than actual awe… and I am ashamed (or should I say ’embarrassed’? LOL) to admit that via my grandchildren it has now become part of my informal social media lexicon :). I will really have to start watching myself!

    Another one that I have not seen mentioned here, and which really irks me: “obsessed”. To express infatuation, delight, agreement – everything but obsession… Heard on TV talent shows.

  7. I missed this Daily Writing Tip when it appeared.
    One more overused, lazy word is “stupid” (misused in the same sense as “crazy” is misused– “It’s stupid easy!”).
    The word that makes me want to slap the person saying it, though, is “SERIOUSLY.” It seems to be a replacement for “very” or “really.” “I’m seriously hungry.” “I’m seriously going to kill my brother.” At the rate that the power is being taken out of this word, we may soon not care when a person says, “My child seriously ill.”

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