There are other words — far more prosaic ones — that we’d like to hear more of in 2012, words that might signal improvement in our politics, culture and economy. For instance, our polarized civil discourse would benefit from more frequent use of the word “respect.”
Every New Year’s Eve, Lake Superior State University in Michigan releases its list of “banned words” — overused, misused or generally useless words the list’s creators want stricken from the English language.
“Baby bump,” “man cave” and the chronically overused “amazing” were in the 2011 collection.
Their peers at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich., take a different approach, offering an annual roundup of words that have fallen out of favor but deserve revival, such as “antediluvian” (old-fashioned, but literally “before the flood”), “erstwhile” (former) and “parlous” (risky or dangerous).
As people who write and edit for a living, there are many words we’d like to hear more often, words that not only have specific meanings that other terms don’t cover but also add flavor and character to the language — words such as “moxie,” “serendipitous,” “quixotic,” “impediment,” “bereft” or the marvelously specific “defenestrate” (meaning to throw something out a window).
There are other words — far more prosaic ones — that we’d like to hear more of in 2012, words that might signal improvement in our politics, culture and economy. For instance, our polarized civil discourse would benefit from more frequent use of the word “respect” — a recognition that opponents are not the same as enemies and that even people with 180-degree-different ideas share the same inherent human dignity as we do.
Along with “respect” should come “perspective,” the use of which doesn’t imply acceptance of the idea that there are no right answers, but rather a recognition that other people approach problems with very different experiences in life than ours.
Our political class might learn that the word “compromise” isn’t necessarily tied to “deadline,” “standoff,” “crisis” and “chaos.” Conveniently close to “compromise” in the dictionary are “cooperation” (a novel concept seldom employed in modern American government) and “commonwealth,” a political community founded for the common good and the polar opposite of “interest group.”
For politicians who don’t get the idea, we should note that while we like the word “bipartisan,” we’re much fonder of “nonpartisan,” since it’s becoming clear that the two major parties today do not have the answers to America’s challenges, and the best responses lie outside the traditional political structure.
Some desirable words have applications in different spheres. During the discussions of our federal and state budgets, we’d like to hear talk of “investment” — spending on education, infrastructure and preventive health initiatives — far more often than “entitlement.” Similarly, the business world would benefit from the long-term approach implied in investment more than the short-term gains of “trading.”
“Appreciation” — thankful recognition of the things we have — is essential to our mental health, but after years of seeing housing values beaten down and stock prices whipsawed, we’d also like to see the term employed more often in an economic sense.
Some seldom-used words really do deserve a comeback. In a society where everyone feels qualified to opine on everything, immediately and whether they know anything about it or not, we could all learn the benefits of “introspection.” And in a Facebook culture where so many people feel compelled to share every experience of their lives, we might all benefit from re-learning the meaning of — here’s a real golden oldie now — “restraint.”
Language defines how we think and act. As an election year begins, we shouldn’t let politicians control the national debate by employing meaningless phrases such as “fair share” and “values” and whipping up fake “crises” about “job-killing” policies. We can let the candidates and their media spinners set the terms of the discussion, or frame it ourselves in positive, constructive terms. Failure to do so would be, well, parlous for us all.
-- The Holland Sentinel (Mich.)