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


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?

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