According to the Global Language Monitor, the English language has over a million words. The million mark was hit in June 2009. With so many words and so many choices, why do some people use the same ones over and over and incorrectly at that?
I was waiting my turn at a coffee shop and heard the customer ahead of me place his order. The exchange of words was fine up to a point. It ended with the man behind the counter saying to the customer, “You can pick up your coffee at the cashier.”
The customer’s response: “Awesome.”
No, the Grand Canyon is awesome. Notre Dame and the pyramids at Giza are awesome but not coffee. Awesome is breathtaking, astonishing, even fearsome, and as much as I love coffee, getting a container of it isn’t any of those things.
Out of those million English words, I always thought there were enough verbs, but I must have been wrong because people are creating new ones. Since we’ve been speaking Middle English, the word for ‘to transfer possession of’ has been give but lately the noun gift is being used in its place. Give, giving and gave has become gift, gifting and gifted. It seems to work but doesn’t that make a ‘gifted child’ someone’s son or daughter they no longer want and pass on to a friend at Christmas?
There’s another verb that although also around for a long time, has taken on a different and contemporary definition. It’s rocking, and is being used in place of wearing, as in ‘wearing clothing.’ But you have to be careful about which types of clothing you apply it to. It goes perfectly with Air Jordan Super Flys and skinny brim hipster hats, but no one will ever rock Birkenstocks and babushkas.
Here’s a verb that’s changed by, I’d say, about ninety-percent. Decimate is currently being used to mean ‘to destroy a large part’ but it originally meant ‘to reduce by ten percent,’ and only ten percent. Its root is the Latin decem or ten. When a Roman legion’s mutiny was put down, they were decimated. The soldiers were lined up, and every tenth one was beaten to death by nine others, a very precise and deadly way of reducing by ten-percent.
A sector that’s often guilty of not so much misusing words, but using them pretentiously, is the corporate world. Limits become parameters, detailed becomes nuanced and accountability is now transparency. There’s also a belief in that culture that the more syllables a word has, the more important the speaker must be. Functionality is three syllables better than function, and they’ll never use use when they can use utilize. An exception to that corporate multi-syllable rule is shop. Calling a corporate center or office a shop gives it something it doesn’t have. A shop implies physical creativity as might be found in an atelier or studio. Edison had a shop at Menlo Park. Spreadsheets and Gantt charts just don’t come up to that level.
There are some other words that are fine when used alone but not when combined with certain other words. One is hone. Its misuse is so common that it’s almost become accepted. Hone is defined as ‘to sharpen or make perfect,’ like when someone ‘hones their skills.’ Lately, it’s being used incorrectly in place of the verb home, as in, ‘to move toward a goal’ or ‘to guide to a target’ like a homing device on a missile or even a homing pigeon. You can hone something but you can’t ‘hone in.’ There’s only a one letter variation between ‘home in’ and’ hone in’ but what a difference that makes to anyone who knows the difference. Another common but incorrect combination is ‘most unique.’ Unique already says it all, and it can’t be topped and made more superlative. Saying ‘most unique’ is as pointless as saying ‘most best’ or ‘most favorite.’ The adjective is just not necessary.
I’ll finish with a commonly used pronoun that signifies ‘no matter what’ but has recently taken on a very powerful new meaning. The word is whatever. If you want to end a discussion by implying that the discussion is beneath you and the person you’re speaking with is inconsequential and thereby dismissed, simply say, “Whatever!” and walk away. It’ll do it every time.