Rage against the language

by David Alm on October 17, 2013

Sacrilicious-The-Simpsons-Tin-Tote-1I once knew a guy who thought that when journalists are recognized for outstanding work, they receive a Pewlett Surprise. And who of us didn’t, at some point in life, utter the words “intensive purposes” when we should have said “intents and purposes” instead?

Then there’s “should of known,” “supposably,” and the most cited example of all, “irregardless.” (Oddly enough, each of those examples is recognized as legit by my MacBook.)

Yes, we mangle the English language. But is that really such a terrible thing?

To wit, last week, Buzzfeed — that tireless producer of listicles about, well, everything — published a piece including “17 made-up and misused words that make you rage.” Among them: “conversate,” “flustrated,” “expresso,” and “I could care less.”

Some of these are truly rage-worthy. “I could care less,” for example, means the exact opposite of what it’s intended to mean. Because if you could care less, then you do care — at least a little bit. Anyone who says “I could care less” isn’t thinking about what they’re saying.

But aren’t some of the words in Buzzfeed’s list merely examples of how the English language evolves? After all, ours is a language comprised of numerous other languages — particularly German and Latin — and new words are added to the dictionary every year. If it weren’t for portmanteaus and neologisms, we’d still be speaking like Beowulf.

“Expresso,” for example, is a portmanteau of “express” and “espresso” (which, by the way, is Italian for “express”). Isn’t “Expresso,” then, nothing more than an Anglicized version of the Italian word, no different than, say, substituting “coffee” for “café”? And while I’ve never heard anyone say “flustrate,” I kind of like it. To feel at once flustered and frustrated deserves to have a word, and I can’t think of a better one than flustrated.

Granted, some portmanteaus and neologisms are very, very annoying. I’d include “supposably” and “irregardless” in this category, along with some others that are conspicuously absent from Buzzfeed’s list. I once had an editor at a prominent magazine who used the word “ephereal” at least once a week. It pissed me off every time. “Ephemeral” means temporary, transient, and elusive, while “ethereal” means not of this world, literally “of the ether.” So what in the hell does “ephereal” mean?

Or what about “laxadaisical”? You could make a case that to be lax (relaxed, permissive, loose) could be like being lackadaisical (apathetic, devoid of enthusiasm or determination), but how is combining those two words into one better than just using either “lax” or “lackadaisical” in the first place?

I’ll cop to being as annoyed as anyone when I hear people say things like “misunderestimate,” “whole nother,” and “vice-a versa,” but not because they’re made up. They’re annoying because they’re meaningless, like saying “I should of gone to English class today.”

But come on, Buzzfeed. At least give “expresso” and “flustrate” a break. Otherwise, start learning Old English and prepare to atone for every time one of your editors utters the word “listicle” around the office.

Brandon Hopkins October 17, 2013 at 2:50 pm

I enjoy using “irregardless.” I get a little language-pedant thrill whenever I say it (but always with a note of sarcasm to cover my shame).

To my mind, “misunderestimate” is the greatest addition to the English language in the past 100 years. Bush is a modern Shakespeare–right up there with Sarah Palin and Yogi Berra.

I liked your bit on “expresso,” too–this is the “law of Hobson-Jobson” in action. The combination “espr” is not a morpheme native to English, which makes it difficult to pronounce (some speakers might not even really hear it). We default to the more Latinate “ex-” before “p” rule and change this automatically. Comparable case: Spanish speakers default to the “e” before “s” rule in their phonetics and therefore have difficulty pronouncing English words beginning with “s” without unconsciously adding the (to them) required “e.” Irregardless, saying “expresso” makes one sound like some witless rube who doesn’t know a cappuccino from a macchiato. Why not just go the French route and call it an “express”?

Barry March 28, 2015 at 12:25 pm

I also love ”phrases” which completely go against the rules.
My favorite is an advertisement I heard on my local radio a few years ago speaking of the attributes of a pain pill.
It was said to; ”Completely alleviate up to 75 to 80% of all pain”.

Completely meaning ”all”.
Alleviate meaning ease or ”partially” remove.
Up to meaning ”A” ceiling.
75 to 80% meaning ”two” ceilings.
”all pain” when they just told me it only took away ”part” in two different ways.

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