Word and phrases I despise

April 7, 2022 • 1:45 pm

I believe all of these words or phrases are new, but since I don’t keep track I can’t be positive. At any rate, here are the latest four entries in my list of words and phrases I cannot stand. I offer these, of course, expecting readers to respond with their own linguistic bêtes noires.  I will use examples from the HuffPost when I find them, as that’s the epicenter of despiséd words and phrases.

1.)Perfect storm“.  This comes from a “nor’easter” turned hurricane off New England in 1991; it killed 13 and caused millions of dollars in damage. The Perfect Storm resulted from a concatenation of unusual meteorological conditions, and now is used by chowderheads to mean “a bad situation caused by the co-occurrence of several contributing factors.” It’s perhaps better known as the title of a 2000 movie about the storm.

There are two problems here. The first is that the phrase is shopworn, a cliché that is no longer especially cute or especially evocative. Second, it’s often used just to mean “concatenation”, even of good things, as in this HuffPost article (click all screenshots to read):

When someone uses this phrase, I consider them grammatically lazy. Because it can mean either good or bad stuff, it’s lost its original meaning. And there are simpler and less cutesy phrases that can substitute, like “bad outcome of many causes”  As Orwell said, avoid shopworn phrases.

2.)Deep dive.” Doesn’t this sound erudite and official? Well, guess what, there’s nothing it says that the phrase “close look” or “closer look” doesn’t say as well. Those who use it”deep dive” are grammatical sheep, employing the phrase because everybody else is. Let’s take a “deep dive into empathy,” meaning “discussing empathy in detail”:

Don’t brand yourself a linguistic ovid by emitting this odious phrase.

3.) “Sammie” “or “sammy” for “sandwich”. This is one of those attempts to be cute that fails badly. In fact, used in the singular, you save no syllables by saying “sammie” for “sandwich.” Further, when I hear the word, I think of Jews, often nicknamed “Sammy” if their real name is Samuel. (I had an uncle Sammy.)

Here’s a comestible that’s been doubly debased by that name:

There are many people who don’t like their own names shortened this way. Matthew Cobb goes by “Matthew”, not “Matt” or “Matty”; Richard Dawkins is “Richard,” not “Dick.” We respect their choices. Please respect the tasty sandwich by not calling it a “sammie”! This is one of those words that I may even correct if I hear someone say it. For example, if someone says to me, “Would you like a sammie?”, I may reply politely, feigning ignorance, “Do you mean a sandwich?”

4.) “Firestorm”, meaning “big kerfuffle” or “brouhaha”.  And we’re very close to #1 again, because many of the benighted use “firestorm” in the same way they’d use “perfect storm”.

In fact, a firestorm is what happens when fire and wind meet in a particularly dangerous conflagration. If it’s just a ruckus or kerfuffle or controversy, call it that. Don’t be like this HuffPost slacker, reaching for the nearest metaphor to describe Hillary’s emails:

Again, I’m with Orwell, who opposed stale metaphors, and this one has all the appeal of a week-old slice of Wonder Bread left out on the counter. Best to make up your own metaphors, if possible, and if not, well then avoid trying to be au courant.

Your turn. And get off my lawn!

Once again: Is there a better word for “woke”?

February 17, 2022 • 8:45 am

I keep using the words “woke” and “wokeness” (and in fact the next post contains them); but in other places, or in private emails, people keep kvetching to me because I’m “always criticizing wokeness, and that’s rude.”

Indeed, “woke”, as I use it, does have connotations of the pejorative. But I use it like I use the word “Republican”: it stands for a set of principles that I happen to largely disagree with. But sometimes I use “Republican” as a neutral descriptor, as in “Republican senator Mitch ‘666’ McConnell”. (See? I usually sneak some disapprobation snuck in.)

Still, I’ve tried substitutes. “Politically correct” is passé, “The successor Ideology” is cumbersome and, to many, opaque. John McWhorter likes “The Elect”, but that’s a noun and not an adjective; one can use “wokeish” as an adjective. Even McWhorter usually reverts to “woke” in his NYT columns.

If you have a word that’s better, let me know. I put up a version of this post a while back, and the sentiment was overwhelmingly to keep using “woke” or its variants. What say you now?

Or perhaps I should stick with the pejorative usage and ignore those people who want me to lighten up on the woke. . .

Google purifies its language

January 23, 2022 • 1:30 pm

Lawrence Krauss has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (note: this bit of the paper is largely right wing, not that Krauss is) that shows some ways the ever vigilant Google Squad is policing language. Click on the screenshot to read:

According to Krauss, the policing will work this way:

Google has created guidelines for “inclusive” language in software and documentation that describe how software should reflect the hypersensitive feelings of programmers who are immersed in woke culture and fixated on victimhood and offense. Apparently these guidelines will be enforced in the future in all new open-source projects, and the company will scrub earlier versions as well. Various other technology groups, including some at universities and professional associations, have developed their own guidelines. Microsoft recently introduced a feature for its popular Word software that can ferret out and replace noninclusive words and phrases.

He mentions some of the changes that aren’t offensive, like using “master/slave” for technology or “whitelist/blacklist” used in the usual ways, but there are some words whose offense isn’t so easily discerned:

“black box”
“senior citizen” (it is to be “older adults”)
“older version” (now to be “earlier version”)

and the all time champion:

“smartphone”.  What is that about? Is it offensive because other phone are dumb, and thus the term is ableist? No substitute has been prescribed. How about “meritocraticphone”?

“Quantum supremacy”, the point at which quantum computers exceed what conventional computers can do, is has been verboten for a while but to justify that is a stretch.

Krauss gives two reasons why this Orwellian revision of language is bad: it’s a waste of time and it makes language less colorful. But I think it’s bad for a more important reason: it reflects a policing of our whole society by a gang of Medium Brothers (as opposed to Big Brothers), and it stifles dissent. It’s the most obvious sign of how the authoritarian Pecksniffs are trying to force society to talk and think their way.

Here’s a dumbphone, which is offended by the iPhone 13:

The perils of plural pronouns: “They sneezes”

January 17, 2022 • 2:45 pm

Reader j.j. sent me this link to a post at Language Log, which seems to be a place where language mavens hash out arcane topics.  I’ll put the item at issue as a screenshot (click on it to see the entry and then the remainder of this very short piece (indented) so you can look up the links.

“They sneezes?” Well, if someone uses the plural “they” because they’re polygendered or bi-gendered (there are of course several dozen genders that could use “they”), then why not “sneeze” rather than “sneezes”? Is it an error? Here’s the rest of the article:

I’m guessing that this was originally “said to someone after he sneezes”. And then an (appropriate) decision was made to change all generic third-person animate pronouns to they, implemented via some kind of pattern-action rule, run by a computer program or an over-worked low-level employee.

There are more than a few other examples Out There. Some of them seem to be attributable to imperfect translation from another language. Others seem to represent the same kind of pronoun-updating as the cited dictionary entry:

  • Have clients identify high risk behaviors and suggest modifying behaviors.
    • For example, a child comes to school with a cold. They sneezes and covers it with his hand. They high fives with a friend. They wipes his hands after with a handkerchief then goes to class. What did the child do that was risky? What should they have done instead?

The last bit after the dot is a direct quote from the source.

I still don’t understand why anybody thinks this is proper. If you feel plural, you use the plural verb. This must be a mistake, right? It has to come from mistaking someone’s plural gender with their status as a single individual.

What say you?

French resist new pronoun “iel” on grounds of spreading “wokisme”

November 29, 2021 • 11:00 am

I don’t particularly have a dog in this fight, as I don’t really object to people choosing their pronouns so long as they don’t choose their biological sex. But the article does stand as a report on both the French character as well as the spread of woke language to Europe—and on Europeans’ fears that they’re becoming like Americans.

Again from the NYT, we hear of a new French pronoun, “iel”, which of course is a combination of “elle” (she) and il (he). As you probably know, the French are very protective of their language—in fact, there is a whole outfit, the Académie française, to maintain the purity of the French language. I know of no other country that has such a thing. And, of course, the Académie doesn’t much like “iel”, which is used to express either someone’s “binary” gender—like “hir” in the U.S.—or to refer to a person of any gender to avoid misgendering.

Read about the kerfuffle by clicking on the screenshot:

Just a small excerpt:

Perhaps France was always going to have a hard time with nonbinary pronouns. Its language is intensely gender-specific and fiercely protected by august authorities. Still, the furor provoked by a prominent dictionary’s inclusion of the pronoun “iel” has been remarkably virulent.

Le Petit Robert, rivaled only by the Larousse in linguistic authority, chose to add “iel” — a gender-neutral merging of the masculine “il” (he) and the feminine “elle” (she) — to its latest online edition. Jean-Michel Blanquer, the education minister, was not amused.

“You must not manipulate the French language, whatever the cause,” he said, expressing support for the view that “iel” was an expression of “wokisme.”

Mr. Blanquer is seemingly convinced of a sweeping American “woke” assault on France aimed at spreading racial and gender discord over French universalism. Last month he told the daily Le Monde that a backlash against what he called woke ideology was the main factor in the 2016 victory of Donald J. Trump.

In this instance, however, he was joined by Brigitte Macron, the first lady. “There are two pronouns: he and she,” she declared. “Our language is beautiful. And two pronouns are appropriate.”

The Robert defines “iel” (pronounced roughly “yell”) as “a third person subject pronoun in the singular and plur used to evoke a person of any gender.

Macron’s decrying “iel” is like Jill Biden coming out against the use of any pronoun except “he” or “she”, which of course would lead to her immediate cancellation. But France isn’t as woke, or as resistant to language change, as the U.S. Nevertheless, some gender-nonconforming French people are angry at her pronouncement. Here’s one:

Lilian Delhomme, 24, a gender-nonconforming student of international affairs at the University of Paris 8 who has been using the pronoun “iel” for about a year, was appalled by Ms. Macron’s statement.

“This for me was very violent,” Delhomme said in an interview.

I see they’re already starting to use the term “violence” for certain words. I don’t mind Delhomme choosing her pronoun, but she can’t conflate a pronouncement from the wife of the head of state for a punch in the face. At any rate, Delhomme has been frustrated because although “iel” has declared her preference, fellow students keep using “il”.

Part of the reason for the revival of new pronouns is the male-predominant structure of the language:

For some time, a movement for “inclusive writing” has battled the linguistic establishment in France. It is broadly an attempt to wean the French language of its male bias, including the rule that when it comes to the choice of pronouns for groups of women and men, the male form takes precedence over the female; and when it comes to adjectives describing mixed gatherings, they take the masculine form.

The Académie rebuffed such attempts earlier this year. Its secretary-in-perpetuity, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, said that inclusive writing, even if it seemed to bolster a movement against sexist discrimination, “is not only counterproductive for that cause but harmful to the practice and intelligibility of the French language.”

And so it goes. I suggest that the Germans start considering using “sier” to signify the melding of “er” (he) and “sie” (she).

I need a new word for “woke”

November 28, 2021 • 11:00 am

I got an email the other day from a reader who objected to my repeated use of the word “woke” to refer to performative social justice warriors who don’t effect change.  He claimed that the usage was turning people off who might otherwise be on my side. When I asked for evidence, he said that when Richard Dawkins praised this site on Twitter, a lot of the Twitter comments, said the reader, mentioned unfavorably my use of the term “woke”.  I haven’t checked as i don’t do Twitter fights.

I know of course that “woke” originally had a more positive meaning, and was black argot for “alert to social injustice” (by that I mean true social injustice). Now, however, it’s used in a pejorative manner, as I indicated.  In that sense it’s similar to “p.c.” or “politically correct” which started out positive and then became satirical. In fact, it almost has the same meaning as “woke.”

But I’m still uncomfortable using a pejorative term to describe a movement I dislike intensely, though I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps it detracts from my credibility or my arguments, but I suspect that those who are turned off by it are looking for an excuse to dismiss what I say. I haven’t yet processed why I’m contemplating this change.

The alternative term that the person suggested was a jawbreaker of many syllables, and was so arcane nobody would know its meaning. (I forgot it.) So I’m canvassing readers to see if:

a. I should still keep using the term “woke”


b. If not, what word would you suggest.

Please comment below.

A Polish tongue twister

November 23, 2021 • 9:45 am

In my perambulations across the Internet, I came upon a list of international tongue twisters, and looked up the Polish ones. I thought they’d be interesting because Polish, with its notable absence of vowels and presence of many cases, is a very hard language for English speakers to learn, much less pronounce.  I’ve been sending these tongue twisters to Malgorzata each morning and then Skyping her to hear her read them in Polish. And oy! are they hard!

I also discovered that Polish poets often write poems as tongue twisters, the way Anglophones write limericks—as a form of amusement.  So I will present the latest Polish tongue twister and you can try to pronounce it. You will fail.  It’s part of a poem by Czeskaw Jryszewski:

Chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie w Szczebrzeszynie,
W szczękach chrząszcza trzeszczy miąższ,
Czcza szczypawka czka w Szczecinie,
Chrząszcza szczudłem przechrzcił wąż,
Strząsa skrzydła z dżdżu,
A trzmiel w puszczy, tuż przy Pszczynie,
Straszny wszczyna szum…

If you heard it pronounced by a Polish person, it is indeed a tongue twister, and doesn’t sound all that much like the words above. So it goes.

Malgorzata also translated it into English:

A beetle sounds in reeds in Szczebrzeszyn [name of a town],
In the beetle’s jaws pulp is creaking,
A meaningless earwig is hiccuping in Szczecin [name of a town],
A snake bashed the beetle with a crutch,
It shakes rain off its wings,
And a bumblebee in the forest close to Pszczyna [name of a town],
Started horrendous noise.

Freddie deBoer has some questions

November 9, 2021 • 9:15 am

I’ve recently read a few things by Freddie deBoer, described by Wikipedia as “an American academic and author”, as well as an “author and a socialist,” and so far he looks like a prominent person to follow. Reader cesar clued me into this piece on his eponymous Substack column, which you can read for free. (But remember to subscribe if you keep reading the site.) This is a very short piece so I won’t quote much, but it makes two assertions with a great deal of wit:

1.) Members of the Woke Brigade object to every term, phrase, or definition used to describe them—especially “woke”. (And yes, I know where the word came from.)

2.) They do this on purpose to avoid criticism.

Click to read:

deBoer was prompted to write because of the tweet below from Adam Serwer, a writer for The Atlantic.

I have no idea whether Serwer is woke, but I for one would be glad to explain what I mean: “woke” refers to those people who want to effect social justice (an admirable goal) but do so by either performative, non-effective acts or going to ludicrous extremes of writing or speaking. In general, wokeness either harms or has no effect on true liberalism. Two cases in point: preventing Dorian Abbot from giving a lecture on climate change at MIT, and protesting “Kimono Wednesdays” at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.  And let’s not forget all those “Grievance Studies” that Pluckrose et al. were mocking: real papers on stuff like the unbearable whiteness of pumpkins, or yogurt, or Pilates, or glaciology. Enough said.


Two excerpts from deBoer, and you’re invited put your own definition of “wokeness” in the comments. I will keep using the word in the sense described above.

. . . no [using] woke, it’s a “dogwhistle” for racism. (The term “dogwhistle” is a way for people to simply impute attitudes you don’t hold onto you, to make it easier to dismiss criticism, for the record.) But the same people say there’s no such thing as political correctness, and they also say identity politics is a bigoted term. So I’m kind of at a loss. Also, they propose sweeping changes to K-12 curricula, but you can’t call it CRT, even though the curricular documents specifically reference CRT, and if you do you’re an idiot and also you’re a racist cryptofascist. Also nobody (nobody!) ever advocated for defunding the police, and if they did it didn’t actually mean defunding the police. Seems to be a real resistance to simple, comprehensible terms around here. Serwer is a guy who constantly demands that he and his allies be allowed to do politics on easy mode, but he’s just part of a broader communal rejection of basic self-definition and comprehensible terms for this political tendency. Also if you say things they don’t like they might try to beat you up. Emphasis on try.

and one more:

The basic stance of the social justice set, for a long time now, has been that they are 100% exempt from ordinary politics. BlackLivesMatter proponents have spent a year and a half acting as though their demand for justice is so transcendently, obviously correct that they don’t have to care about politics. When someone like David Shor gently says that they in fact do have to care about politics, and points out that they’ve accomplished nothing, they attack him rather than do the work of making their positions popular. Well, sooner or later, guys, you have to actually give a shit about what people who aren’t a part of your movement think. Sorry. That’s life. The universe is indifferent to your demand for justice, and will remain so until you bother to try to change minds. Nobody gives you what you want. That’s not how it works. Do politics. Think and speak strategically. Be disciplined. Work harder. And for fuck’s sake, give me a simple term to use to address you. Please? Because right now it sure looks like you don’t want to be named because you don’t want to be criticized.

DeBoer desperately asks readers to give an acceptable term for Wokeness, but I think it’s a losing cause. “Wokeness” has already stuck, and most people have a pretty good idea of what it means. Any attempt to change it will meet the fate of the word “Brights” suggested by Dan Dennett to refer to “philosophical naturalists.” Have you heard anybody use it in the last couple of years except to mock it?

Words and phrases I detest

November 4, 2021 • 2:00 pm

Yes, it’s time for another selection of words and phrases that burn my onions and get my knickers in a wad. And, of course, you’ll get your own chance to weigh in below. As usual, I take many of my examples from the HuffPost, the epicenter of bad writing.  We have five items today; click on the screenshots to go to the articles.

1. Impactful. I detest this word because it seems to be a recent usage, is pretentious, and there are plenty of better words for it—like “powerful”. In the case of the HuffPost usage below, why wouldn’t “influential” do as well?  Can you imagine saying, “Well, Bill Gates is very impactful these days.”


2. Crisply.  I see this word all the time, like the odious phrase “bright line”, but it reminds me not of anything evocative except crackers. Here’s a usage from a Science paper I cited recently:

To wit:

An extreme social event (a war, in this case) that triggered intense, selective exploitation of elephants crisply illustrates the pronounced coupling between human societies and evolutionary processes in other life forms.

How does “crisply illustrate” differ from “vividly illustrate” or simply “illustrate”?Are they showing pictures of Saltines?


3. Majorly:  Now this one is really bad. Yes, it’s in the Oxford English Dictionary, but it grates like nails on a blackboard.  This article has two errors: “majorly” (used with “intersect”, for chrissake), and “suped-up”, which is supposed to be spelled “souped-up”.

The offending sentence:

Early critic reactions to the scene described it as “very tame” and “very G-rated,” so keep your expectations low regarding just how steamy Marvel is getting in this new era. For decidedly more R-rated fare, fans noted that past heroes in Marvel television shows like “Jessica Jones,” which have yet to majorly intersect with the current MCU slate of films, featured more explicit and suped-up sexual encounters.


4. Going forward.  I know other readers hate this, too, for all it means is, “in the future,” or simply “next”—and sometimes doesn’t even need to be there. Here it is used in a Madison, Wisconsin NBC site—in the headline. (And no, it doesn’t refer to mail being forwarded; it means “from now on”; so it’s not only irritating, but confusing.)


5. Advancement. Now you see this one all the time, and all it means is “advance” as a noun. Anyone using it is being pretentious. Stop it now!

. . . aaaand, here it is in a HuffPost headline. “Advances” would have read so much better! But the author wanted to sound, well, serious:


Your turn! What words curl the soles of your shoes?

Jesse Singal: The AMA jumps the Woke Shark, introduces Medspeak

November 1, 2021 • 9:15 am

The American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Psychological Association are now beyond redemption since they’ve decided to steep their organizations in “progressive” ideology and also to issue fulsome apologies for their past behavior. But this I found unbelievable:  tweets sent by Jesse Singal and forwarded by Luana. The AMA is policing language to conform to an extreme Leftist view of the world.  Welcome to Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s Medspeak:

I’ll just expand the text:

What the AMA is doing here is taking statements of fact and then politicizing them by ascribing those facts to various debatable ideological positions. In other words, they’re adding irrelevant ideological material in service of their viewpoint. This of course stifles any discussion. But since when is the AMA supposed to police language?

I’ll add a few more of Singal’s tweets from that thread; you can enlarge the text for yourself.  There are 15 tweets in the thread.

You can check Singal’s excerpts out by clicking below, which will take you to the 54-page document. It provides hours of amusement unless you have high blood pressure, in which case you’ll blow an artery.

They also have a convenient glossary where you can amuse yourself by turning up stuff like this. Note the “subjective” part, designed to denigrate an objective sexual binary (yes, of course there are very rare exceptions, like hermaphrodites, but they are not members of “a different sex”). The glossary doesn’t even give a hint that there is “biological” sex defined by relative gamete size, and virtually all humans can be classified as one or the other of two sexes. When I sorted flies, they were either male or female (with dissection invariably showing the correct gametes) or, once every six months or so, a gynandromorph, reflecting loss of a chromosome.

Throughout there is unquestioning endorsement of the ideas of Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo:

Why is that in there? Why would a doctor ever need the concept of “white fragility”? It’s in there to cater to the Woke.

More: an unquestioning acceptance of the tenets of Kendi, with no dissent permitted.

Enough for me. It appears we’ve lost this battle, but I still find value in pushing back, which may inspire others to follow.

[Added note by GCM: The AMA brochure is even nuttier than it appears on first view. It says not to use the words vulnerable, marginalized, and high-risk, but then uses the words repeatedly in its preferred usages!! It’s as though the approved and disapproved sections were written by two different people!]