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Volume 23 No. 1
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Fighting the good fight against bad (or badly used) words

They arrive with the regularity of the seasons but never leave soon enough (not unlike the winter of 2014). We’re referring to overused words, many of which begin as jargon but end as little more than babble that serves as either an ellipsis or a jumping-off point for those uttering them.

As previously noted on these pages, marketers abuse the King’s English to a greater degree than most professions. But these lesser words have seeped into popular use like the latest flu strain and are nearly as insidious, so it’s not just marketers upon whom we want to drop an Oxford dictionary anymore.

We’re unsure if excessive use of these words vexes you to the same degree. Regardless, you’ve surely noticed that 95 percent of the time when people say “literally,” what they mean is “figuratively.” So we’re herewith banning that most overused and misused word, along with a series of others, as linguistic malware. If we don’t stop them, our collective hard drive will fill with mauvais mots and crash.

“Iconic” also has climbed to the top of Mount Overuse. Originally, that word referred to a work of art depicting Jesus or another religious figure. Now, a quick search of The New York Times archives found “iconic” used to describe DNA’s double-helix strands and Minnetonka Moccasins. So apparently, there are no iconic standards, but there is iconic footwear.

We admit to having used iconic in describing everything from advertising — like Ogilvy’s spot headlined “At 60 miles per hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls Royce comes from the electric clock” — to zoos. (The Bronx version without baseball players will serve nicely here, thanks). Now, we’re done, because “iconic” just ain’t as iconic as it used to be. The word has lost whatever meaning it had. Our sure-fire test: Next time someone utters “iconic” in your presence, resist the urge to slap the person and instead ask the not-so-cunning linguist to define the word without using the root, “icon.” Nine out of 10 will fail, so we’re also banning that word as clichéd.

OK, now we’re literally on a roll, so let’s also forbid the use of “ecosystem.” It’s as stale as last week’s pizza, and while the original meaning of symbiosis seems practical, it now has become the mother of collective nouns. We have a word that works perfectly here: universe. That’s not a large enough set? Note to anyone in the technology sector: Nothing in your universe is an ecosystem.

They say there are fewer art historians and musicologists these days. So with fewer aesthetes, why is there so much “curating” going on, involving everything from tweets to resorts? Being a curator once required educational credentials. Now, it seems the sole qualification is a
broadband connection. In the blogosphere, curate now means to gather and distribute. Wouldn’t those same peoplebe equally happy (and better paid) if they were to collect, organize, select, assess or appraise?

Our high school friend Francesca Consagra is a curator. Naturally, she had some insight on the usurpation of a word once reserved for the arts. “We have chefs and cooks; ballerinas and dancers; we have curators, and people who compile and edit,” said Consagra, senior curator of prints, drawings and European paintings at the University of Texas’ Blanton Museum of Art. “What we don’t have is a proper name for the latter, and many people still don’t know what curators do.’’

Those who insist on using words that aren’t words are the ones we really want to walk off the lexicographic plank. No, your sales department won’t be “incentivized” (though we acknowledge the word’s existence in some lesser dictionaries). That same staff will likely be “incented’’ by a higher commission structure.

There’s long been a epidemic in business circles of fabricating verbs. Certainly you’ve been in meetings where people drop all those “-ize” words. The problem is, everyone’s there to strategize and monetize, so unabashedly they invite co-workers to “product-ize, event-ize’’ and “consumer-ize,” with misguided passion.

They should all be ostracized.

Who are these people promulgating the English-by-business committee? They’re the same ones preoccupied with making things more “merchandisable” and “actionable.” They’re using “architect” as a verb in place of build, and “parking lot” in reference to a desired hiatus. “Park” isn’t adequate?

So if anyone asks you whether a specific task is “doable,” tell him or her that it never will be, even if The New York Times occasionally uses that term in a headline. It may be possible, achievable, feasible, probable, attainable or even viable — but let’s leave “doable” for hairdressers.

All this ideation has made us weary. On a move-forward basis, we’re just maximizing bandwidth in the omnichannel universe of syntax. TTFN. Gotta go onboard some new employees. Then we’ll resume editizing content.

Terry Lefton can be reached at