Each and every New Year’s Day since 1976, Lake Superior State University has released its humorous “List of Words to be Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness.” Compiled from submissions by disgruntled word enthusiasts around the globe, LSSU’s banished words list now serves as the gold standard for determining which words have become so clichéd, vague, or meaningless as to warrant forcible expulsion from the national lexicon.
“Maverick” made the list in 2009, boosted by a wave of irritation spawned by the 2008 election; so did “bailout,” “Wall Street/Main Street,” and “first dude.” The 2013 list included “YOLO,” “fiscal cliff,” and “trending,” joining earlier classics like “awesome” (first banished in 1984, re-banished due to chronic overuse in 2007), “Y2K” (1999), and “To Be Perfectly Honest With You” (1992).
Without further ado, I present to you my 2013 “List of Words to be Banished from Stanford Campus for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness.” Feel free to add your own submissions (and criticize mine) via email or in the online comments section.
Since first clawing its way forth from the slimy bowels of SLE, this little face-sucker has evolved into a fully formed alien invader, rampaging mercilessly around campus and leaving in its wake the burning wreckage of hundreds of formerly thought-provoking discussion sections.
Whatever original meaning “problematic” once had has long been lost in the foggy haze of bombast and grandiloquence. The word now serves primarily as a pretentious, pseudo-academic substitute for “I don’t like what you’re saying,” absolving the utterer of the responsibility to formulate a coherent, rational objection to views with which she may disagree. It has become an anti-intellectual vehicle for dismissing opposing arguments without having to clearly articulate why you actually oppose them.
In the online comments section of my colleague Adam Johnson’s recent piece on racism, for example, “problematic” reared its foul head no less than three times. “To equate historical and current racist systems to prejudicial name-calling and throw them all under the same umbrella of ‘racism’ is 1. deeply problematic 2. awfully condescending and 3. ….really?” wrote one commenter.
“Other concepts such as bigotry and prejudice are equally problematic,” insisted another. And a third commenter dismissed the argument that anti-white slurs and systemic power imbalances can be lexically conflated as “deeply problematic,” without explaining why. In none of these cases did the commenters explain what precisely “problematic” meant or how the concept contributed meaningfully to the discussion. I expect this may be because the inherent vagueness of the term renders such an explanation impossible.
Real start-ups – the original Silicon Valley engines for economic and technological dynamism – once aspired to goals more meaningful than applying a faux-antique filter to the photo of this morning’s funnily-shaped Philz’ coffee foam. Real start-ups, which once harnessed technical creativity and ingenuity in the service of progress, aimed to accomplish objectives that made human life easier and better, not kitschier and more brainless.
Your CS group’s recent relationship-finder app and Google belong to the same “start-up” category in the same way Chihuahuas and German shepherds belong to the same species – which is why “start-up,” its original meaning twisted to suit the needs of an app-obsessed generation fascinated with inflated IPOs, made the cut for this year’s list of banished words.
See definition above.
- I didn’t actually do the reading; please please please don’t call on me again (usage particularly common in IHUM/Thinking Matters sections).
- I don’t much care what you have to say.
- Both of the above. Usage particularly common among freshmen.
A mark of merit once reserved for the cadre of Stanford students who cared enough to involve themselves deeply in causes that brought them no personal glory or benefit, “activist” has since devolved into a platitudinous buzzword capacious enough to cover everything from actually tutoring underserved children to organizing a poorly attended speakers’ panel on muskrat rights in 19th-century Bulgaria. Like the equally generic catchphrase “entrepreneurship,” “activism” has become a vague category of do-goodership that everyone is expected to emulate but no one has ever clearly defined.
As Brendan O’Byrne pointed out in his farewell last week, we need to revive activism and make it mean something real for Stanford.
As an entrepreneurial activist for clear language use, Miles hopes you’ve found this column interesting – and not too problematic. Send him your banished word list nominations at firstname.lastname@example.org.