As the country stood perched on a “fiscal cliff,” legions of word lovers stood up and declaimed “Enough!” It’s not their taxes they were angry about. No, they were angry with that odd, melodramatic metaphor itself, and how overused it is.
“[We’ve] lost sight of the metaphor and started to think it’s a real place, like with the headline, ‘Obama, Boehner meeting on fiscal cliff,' " Barry Cochran of Portland, Ore., wrote to Michigan's Lake Superior State University, which each year compiles a list of overused words and expressions.
“The List of Words to be Banished from the Queen's English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness” is a must-read for all authors and journalists who respect their craft and their readers. Throughout the year, Lake Superior State maintains an open line to English-language readers across the globe via its website, asking that anyone who’s got a beef with an overused phrase or word write to them.
Of all those “job creators” we heard about, Dennis Ittner of Torrance wrote: "One of the most overplayed buzz terms of the 2012 presidential campaign. Apparently 'lowering unemployment' doesn’t have the same impact."
But much of the list is made up of commonly used words and expressions whose overuse and misuse is causing them to lose their subtler shades of meaning. There’s so much “trending” going on, for example, and so many “gurus,” people don’t know if they should have faith in either. And we’re all exhausted from hearing about “passionate” people and their “passion” to do everything “passionately.”
"Seared tuna will taste like dust swept from a station platform -- until it's cooked passionately,” writes Andrew Foyle of Bristol, England. “Apparently, it's insufficient to do it ably, with skill, commitment or finesse. Passionate, begone!"
Lake Superior State has been releasing the list for 38 years now. Unfortunately, just saying a word or expression is totally overused is no guarantee that people will stop using it. Many of the words on the original, 1976 list have become permanently affixed to our tongues and our keyboards: “meaningful,” for example, along with “scenario” and “macho.”
Of "meaningful," the Michigan word mavens wrote in 1976: "Has lost all of its meaningfulness." And of "macho," they wrote: "Seldom pronounced properly and therefore lacks meaningfulness." Well, it's now perfectly fine to say macho even if you don't sound macho saying it. English is a funny language.