Thursday, January 20, 2011

Danger Words

It's time for a new addition to John's List of Danger Words! These are words that make me pause when I'm reading and either wince, or channel my inner Iago Montoya and say, "I do not think that word means what you think it means." Yes; I want to be a language cop. Yes; these words bug me.

Ego: This is frequently used as a code-word for "a way of organizing sensory input that is undesirable." And by undesirable, the author usually means "white, masculine, industrial, and Western-European." When ego is used this way, it's usually paired with a phrase about being Zen or getting in touch with one's feelings. Sometimes ego is confused with or a code phrase for rational, logical, linear, analytical or mental; as in the phrase, "let go of your ego and just experience." Other times, ego is used instead of selfish or self-centered -- which is close, as the ego is a structure of the self postulated by Freud (along with the id and super-ego -- but somehow "he's so id-centric" or "she's an id-maniac" haven't worked themselves into the popular idiom the way ego-centric and egomaniac have).

Energy: Energy is the ability to change the state of matter. Light, heat, sound, and motion are forms of energy. Sometimes people will ask, "Can you feel the energy?" or comment "She sucks all the energy out of a room." It's a metaphor, like the "Light of Christ." Where people get in trouble is when they start thinking of the metaphors literally, and so we get "crystal energy," or "animal energy." I think the only way to cure the over-use of energy instead of words like energized, enthusiasm, euphoria or motivation is to declare a day "Energy Awareness Day" and make every sentence we use one that has a noun coupled with the word energy. Like, "I felt the shoe-energy surrounding my feet" or "Use the key-energy to unlock the door-energy" or "Only the mighty cup-energy will contain the morning's tea-energy."

Ridiculous: This does not mean broken or unworkable in an annoying way, as in "the security line at the airport was ridiculous." It means foolishness, silliness or stupidity that is worthy of derision and scorn. The Windows operating system is not ridiculous... Oh, wait. -- Anyway, just because you dislike something, it makes you angry, or it's inconvenient doesn't automatically make it ridiculous.

Primitive: Primitive means crude, simple, or unrefined. When I encounter the word primitive, I can hear Mr. Spock complaining that he has to build a piece of computer equipment with primitive tools. Somehow, between the Star Trek episode with Edith Keeler and now, primitive has become a code-word for "pure," as in the "noble savage or primitive" (hmmm, no cultural baggage here). I think folks confuse primitive with primal, meaning "closer to the source."

Awesome: I secretly like the 80's skater usage of the word, awesome; it reminds me of "kewl." However, does not mean something is great or really really good, nor is it an exclamation of approval like amen! Awesome means, worthy or inspiring awe, which is the feeling of being something small just a little too close to something humongous. Awe is a mix of respect and dread and wonder and is what you're supposed to feel when your confronted with deity.


There, now you can add these to the list of other words that bug me:  swirled (when describing non-liquid things moving in a chaotic fashion), pixilated (when describing something not seen on a computer or television screen), morph (when describing the transformation or metamorphosis of some non-virtual object), orb (my personal over-used word), and bloody (as in "bloody hell", used by non-English characters in a generic fantasy or pirate genre, or anachronistically by mediaeval English characters).

Do you have a particular word you think is overused or misused ?  Share it here!
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