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Talking Sense

What fancy words & fad names say about us



’Tis but thy name that is my enemy …
O, be some other name!

—Romeo and Juliet (Act 2, Scene 2)

Romeo’s surname was an insurmountable problem for Juliet Capulet because her parents and his parents were bitter enemies. To be in love with a Montague was to be doomed as a “star-cross’d lover” for any Capulet. Had Romeo been an Anderson or a Schwartz, Juliet could have married him in a big church wedding and lived happily ever after. But the name was a deal-breaker, and a fatal one at that.

Unlike Juliet, most of us take names for granted. The recent kerfuffle over Morning Glory Road in Lehi serves as a reminder that we do so at our peril. Who would have thought that a street address with an obscure phallic association would be considered detrimental to a software company’s image? On the other hand, who would not have thought Dixie was a name without unseemly associations? As The Salt Lake Tribune rightly pointed out in an editorial, the alumni and friends of Dixie State College may share an argot, but the words comprising that argot may be offensive to others. The prudent course of action, the Trib argued, would be to address the image problem and, like the Lehi City Council, foreclose offense by changing the name. That’s how the University of Utah handled “Runnin’ Redskins” in the 1970s. That’s not how it played out way down south in Dixie, however.

It seems like names become important only when you are trying to choose the right one for a child, a band, a new product, a body part or a start-up company. Not so with the American Name Society (ANS)—founded in 1951 to promote the study of names and their role in society—which annually selects and publicizes a Name of the Year. For 2011, Arab Spring was chosen; for 2012—no surprise—it was Sandy. Said Donna Lillian, president of the ANS: “Sandy is linked with the two biggest tragic news events of the year,” referring to the “Frankenstorm” that devastated the Northeast and to the slaughter of innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Also on the 2012 ANS list was fiscal cliff, Ben Bernanke’s hackneyed coinage, and Gangnam, the posh district of Seoul featured in the Korean pop song “Gangnam Style,” which racked up a billion views on YouTube.

Gangnam and fiscal cliff were also shortlisted for the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year. So was Twitter favorite YOLO, an acronym for You Only Live Once, defined by Jack Black as “just carpe diem for stupid people.” Missouri Republican Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” earned a well-deserved place in the categories of Most Outrageous and Most Unnecessary words. But word-of-the-year honors for 2012 went to another Twitter term: #hashtag.

GIF (technically pronounced jiff, though most pronounce it with a hard G) was the Oxford American Dictionary’s Word of the Year. GIF is the graphics-interchange software that underlies the simple animated images displayed on a computer screen. It is now both a noun and a verb and “has evolved from a medium for pop-cultural memes into a tool with serious applications, including research and journalism,” according to an Oxford Press news release.

To be honest, I had to look up GIF and YOLO. Malarkey was a problem for thousands of others. They flocked to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary for a definition of the noun after Joe Biden used it to belittle Paul Ryan during the vice-presidential debate in fall 2012.

What did most people look up most in 2012? Socialism and capitalism. “They’re words that sort of encapsulate the zeitgeist,” says  Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large. “They’re words that are in the national conversation.”

Collaboration is another word bandied about in the national conversation. It’s a tricky one, however, as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has pointed out. In Silicon Valley, collaboration is desirable and sought after, he wrote. In Washington, collaborators who vote with the other party are traitors.

The lesson for scribblers like me is to be mindful of the audience. Ioan Grillo, a British journalist who has written extensively on the Mexican drug war, has described how his dispatches were blue-penciled by an editor at the Houston Chronicle so as to be acceptable to “Bubba,” the editor’s name for typical Texans. When explaining the reason for a change in Grillo’s reporting, the editor would simply say, “Bubba doesn’t like that word.”

No fancy words like malarkey for Bubba. No fad words for me. The latest buzzword, “conversation” (as in, “Socialism and capitalism are words that are in the national conversation”) and “optics” (as in “The optics of John Swallow’s dealings with Jeremy Johnson are damaging”), have become tiresome. So-called
verbing—contorting nouns to make verbs like scrapbooking, friending, journaling and trending—makes me irritable.

I am not alone. “Trending” made Lake Superior State University’s 38th-annual list of Words to be Banished for “misuse, overuse and general uselessness.” I’ll bet Bubba doesn’t like trending, either. And Bubba probably doesn’t give a damn about poor Juliet Capulet.Â