Lists of Stale Words Have Become Kind of Stale. I Say We Do Away With Them.

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


Andrew Sullivan links today to an interview with Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books:

I know from sometimes-painful experience how particular you are about certain tired words. Massive, for example, is strictly forbidden. Or framework.

Framework could rightly refer to the supporting structure of a house, or a wooden construction for holding roses or hollyhocks in a garden, but now the word is used to refer to any system of thought, or any arrangement of ideas. And it really means nothing.

The most heretical thing we do is try to avoid context. Context has an original, useful meaning, now generally lost: the actual language surrounding a particular text—con, meaning “with,” and text—and now it’s used for every set of surrounding circumstances or state of things, and it gets worse with contextualize, sometimes used to mean some sort of justification.

….Then there is the constant movement of every kind of issue—war, treaty, or political feud—on or off “the table.” The question of an independent Palestinian state is on the table! Or is it off the table? It’s become a way of avoiding a more precise account of just what’s happening.

This is one of my pet peeves. Why on earth is framework off limits? As Silvers says, it’s obviously analogous to the framework of a house, and its meaning, far from being “nothing,” is quite plain. Ditto for context. It’s a perfectly good word which, as Silvers himself points out, means “a set of surrounding circumstances.” What’s the problem? And ditto yet again for off the table.

Obviously any of these words and phrases can be misused or overused. But what is it that makes editors mistake their idiosyncratic dislikes for a cosmic rule of good taste? If you hire a good writer, and she wants to use framework to refer to an arrangement of ideas, then let her. It’s her byline on the piece, not yours. And it’s not her problem that you have some weird aversion to the word.

I think we all agree that editors should watch out for faddish usages that become overworked, and recommend replacements where it truly seems advisable. But that’s it. In fact, I have a proposal. I’ve noticed that it’s become rather faddish lately for publications to have (sometimes quite long) lists of banned words. Unfortunately, this has gotten hackneyed and stale. How about if we do away with them?

Except for contextualize. That can stay on the list. It really is hideous, isn’t it?

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate