I recently read an essay about how language is being drained of its power. After listening to my mother rehash an article listing Lake Superior State University’s annual tongue-in-cheek Banished Words List of 2023 (a list compiled by LSSU since 1976!), I was interested to hear what others had to say on the topic, as it has been something that has been nagging at me for a while now.
There are some words that worm their way into the popular vernacular that start to grain at me (and apparently others, too) because a) they are just simply overused, b) it feels like the speaker is being lazy when using said word (and/or speaking to others like they are children), and c) are just used improperly and so often that the actual definition of said word becomes lost/losses its power in conveying what it was created to mean. This is pretty much what the Banished Words List covers and this is what the essay elaborated on: the overuse or misuse of words and the diminishment of their power.
The author of the essay I am referring elaborated on the “maxim of extravagance” used so often in our current time’s many communication mediums. For example, the author referenced a conversation a friend of hers overheard at the park between two parents. They were talking about their respective sons’ names. Shortly following the question, “What are your children’s names?”, a response given sounded something like, “Really? Amazing. That’s so beautiful. Just beautiful. How did you choose names like that?”. The names, later discovered, were Matthew and David. Fine names, for sure, but when words like “amazing” and “beautiful” are used in response, one would expect to hear names quite melodious and far outside of common, maybe Jelke or Ignatius.
The gist of the essay was that when we are looking to express any level of emotion, be it immense or (in may cases) minute, we utilize words meant to convey a certain level of magnitude, but that no longer carry the load. This – unsurprisingly – happens in cycles, according to linguists. Year to year, generation to generation, we overuse and misuse words leading to the diminishment of their meanings. A pop-linguistic term for this is “semantic bleaching,” like staining all the color out of our words, and it happens with overuse.1 Writers and thinkers repeatedly make the case that the use of this “stale” language is the symptom and result of the deterioration of critical thought. George Orwell famously brings this up in Politics and the English Language.
The author then goes to ask academics if this “semantic bleaching” is a result of our abundance of communication now versus the past, and they insist there is not more communication, that it is just more visible. She disagrees, but I am on the academics’ side. My boyfriend and I have had many discussions on that very topic. It seems as if we are conversing more than ever, but our “conversations” are shallow and don’t allow for critical thought. Mostly, it feels as if we are just screaming at each other as fast as we can; the victory going to the one putting their words out in the ether fastest without taking the time to really think about what they are “saying”. I often find myself searching for words that haven’t lost their value or those that are able to express my thoughts accurately and come up short, either because a word ceases to exist in our language or I do not have a deep enough lexicon or I feel all the words have lost their weight.
I don’t think that this is a decrease in the power of language, however. There are any number of people that have such a deeply understood handle on words that their books, speeches, poems, blogs, etc. truly embody so much of the intangible, that I (we) are floored and, rightly, awed. I think that we just currently live in a world that values immediacy and an ever-increasing reliance on technology which does not cultivate or value the time and introspection it takes to gather and develop the skill to adequately communicate. But maybe I am being a tad extreme in my assessment.
I do not know what the next generation will look like when it comes to the communication and verbal expression, but I am feel certain that the cycle of “semantic bleaching” will continue. If this deterioration of our language is a hot, trending topic in common conversation, I am unaware. It may rarely get any attention in the mass amount needed to make an adjustment. In the meantime, all I can do is speculate and dream of a world that uses the word vegetable instead of veggie. What a fabulous world that would be!
-Samantha Hanchett, Marketing + Outreach Coordinator
*Please note that the opinions of “Thoughts” are just that and do not necessarily represent the views of the Thomas County Public Library.
1McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza, E. (2022, September 27). Generation Amazing!!! How We’re Draining Language of Its Power. LitHub. https://lithub.com/generation-amazing-how-were-draining-language-of-its-power/