Words That Drive Us Nuts

A friend of mine recently questioned my use of the word “empowered.” He expressed surprise that it was in my vocabulary and wondered if I would next be using “incentivize.” After a judicious search in an etymological dictionary, I sent him a link with the information that “empower” had been used by John Milton and Alexander Pope, among others. Its modern usage dates from 1986. It seems like a perfectly good verb for expressing the notion of giving someone the power to do something.

But I understood his objection. Sometimes certain words will drive us nuts not because of the words themselves but because of the contexts they usually occur in. My friend is well aware of my revulsion at all things New Age, especially various alternative medicines, and “empowerment” is a favourite word in New Age circles. Google “homeopathy and empowerment” and you will get about 186,000 results with phrases like “empowerment for healing.” Flaky New Agers are big on empowering people to do all sorts of amazing things.

In graduate school, my daughter used the word “problematize” in a literature paper, and the professor circled it with the comment “Ugh!” The prof is not a big fan of postmodern theory, and “problematize” is a common postmodern jargon word. But it seems like a perfectly reasonable word to mean simply “make into or regard as a problem requiring a solution.” But according to Wikipedia  “to Problematize a term, writing, opinion, ideology, identity, or person is to consider the concrete or existential elements of those involved as challenges (problems) that invite the people involved to transform those situations. It is a method of defamiliarization of common sense.” Oh.

Another academic jargon word is “operationalize,” which in addition to meaning simply “to make operational,” means, in the social sciences, “to define (a concept) in such a way that it can be practically measured.” It’s hard to imagine “operationalize” being used outside highly specialized writing.

It may be that any neologism that ends in –ize will raise the hackles of (or hackelize) some simply because the resulting coinage sounds so ugly, although the suffix –ize (or –ise) is extremely common in English.

I have finally come to accept “impact” as an ordinary synonym for “affect,” although I never use it myself. In general I have become more relaxed about usages that used to drive me crazy. These days when I hear an American say somebody “graduated high school” instead of “graduated from high school,” I  calmly tell myself that that’s what even educated Americans say. And when I hear somebody say “between you and I,” I know longer want to shoot them. I accept and even use the singular “somebody” as a perfectly good antecedent of the plural “them.” I find this more laid back attitude toward usage quite empowering.

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4 thoughts on “Words That Drive Us Nuts

  1. hmmm, ‘problematize’, used be ‘making a mountain out of a molehill’. I worked in a bar in Dublin and after a while, I just couldn’t stand how people bowdlerized the English language. For example, why would you ask someone if you can ‘get’ a beer? The answer is, obviously, no, because, hey, you’re the customer, I’ll get it for you. And what have you done with the adjective, good? When people say, ‘I’m good’, I look around, as though I’m going to find someone who’s been posting a moral turpitude questionnaire and when I don’t, I wonder, what the hell, did I ask you about your moral disposition? And why does everyone act as though they’re in an evolving screenplay so they never do or say anything, but they do simulate things so they’re saying, like or doing like, whatever. It is driving me to insanity in a handcart because, clearly, I can’t assimilatize these things. You know what I mean? because if you do, you’re part of the problem. Love it. Rant over. Carry on, nothing to see, here

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    1. My son married into a Catholic family from Northern Ireland, and I love to hear his mother-in-law talk. It would be nice if all English speakers were taught to speak with an Irish accent. It wouldn’t matter much what they said.

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      1. My mother was from a very rural, isolated district, near Derry. It was in Donegal, in Lough Swilly and it was called Inch Island, only because the English who mapped and put place names on Irish locations in the 19th century, couldn’t understand the Gaelic language so most place names became phonetic approximations. So, Inch Island, means, quite literally, Island Island because the ‘Inch’ they translated to English was really ‘Inis’ (pronounced, Innish, meaning, island). Now her family’s history went right back to her own Scots’ routes and many expressions they used on that tiny island, were derived from a Scots’ dialect of the 18th century. When they counted, they said, yin, tay, twa for one, two, three and, if something was opposite something, it was’ forenenst’. But I’ve been elocuted (sorry), acted and lived in parts of Ireland and the world where communication was paramount. With a result, my English is impeccable, my accent indiscernible and my vocabulary, always expanding. Americans think I’m foreign, maybe Canadian; English people think I’m English and Irish people, they just think I’m posh and well educated. There’s a bit of truth in all of it but the best thing is, when you’re comfortable with your own command of language, you feel, er, good.

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