Opinion Columns & Blogs

When words are overused, they lose their power

Maybe I’m just too cynical or jaded, but I’m tired of today’s clichés. I’m tired of reading and listening to words and expressions that are practically devoid of meaning because they’re used so often and with such little thought.

Frequently used expressions like “double down,” “jaw dropping” and “wrap your head around” irritate me. Trendy words like “fake,” “pivot,” “elite,” “privileged” and “nuclear” (when used to mean an ultimate approach rather than an atomic source of energy) annoy and frustrate me.

Clichés are not new. They’ve been around ever since humans used language to communicate. They are part of the natural human impulse to use metaphor, to describe one thing by comparing it to another. Language is filled with metaphor.

Clichés are simply metaphors that are used over and over again until they lose not only their originality but their meaning. They come in handy when we don’t want to think or communicate with any creativity.

If I want to say that a person is hardening his stance on a topic, I can just quickly pull from the front of my mind an expression I hear every day and say “double down.” Once, that expression was fresh; the first person to compare becoming more determined in an argument to a blackjack player increasing his bet was being creative. Now most people who say “double down” are just parroting what they’ve heard on television several times a day.

I am not innocent in this regard. I know I use too many clichés. They are hard to avoid. And I recognize that sometimes a writer can use a cliché consciously for a particular effect. Still, I find expressions which are more original to be more appealing and refreshing, whether I’m reading, listening or writing.

It wasn’t that long ago, for example, that “fake” was not used to describe news that was inaccurate, contrived or purposely misleading. Likewise, newscasters didn’t constantly use “pivot” every time they needed a word to describe a person changing his opinion on a topic.

Certainly, before social media, we didn’t see “jaw-dropping” whenever anything out of the ordinary was referenced or “viral” when anything was popular. Nowadays, those words are used constantly, without any attempt to try to be more specific in meaning or more creative in wording.

My frustration results not just from constant repetition of the same word or expression, but also from the lack of thinking involved, from an unwillingness to tackle a concept or issue.

Take the word “elite,” for example. Many commentators talk about the “elite” in this country, who are not in touch with the ordinary person. But who are the “elite”? Are they the rich? The famous? The callous? The thoughtful?

Sometimes I hear the word “elite” applied to anyone who has an education beyond high school. That’s not only sloppy wording, it’s sloppy thinking, implying that if someone had taken the time to learn a subject in depth, he is to be discounted.

Likewise the word “privileged” is often used without thinking. Some commentators use it to refer to anyone who is not a minority. Yes, I understand that often being white or male gives a person an advantage, sometimes a distinct advantage, over someone who is not. But I also know many white persons and many men whose lives have not gone well, especially economically, who do not, understandably, feel “privileged.”

Probably the most egregious example of a word being used without careful thinking is “nuclear,” when used in the expression, “they are going to use the nuclear option” when referring to a decision of last resort, as in “the Senate will use the nuclear option” when passing a bill or approving a nomination without the standard number of votes. That inappropriate use of that term became obvious recently when the North Korea dictator threatened to use nuclear bombs against any country he doesn’t like.

As I look back on what I’ve written, I feel I may sound like a curmudgeon. But I’m not simply a grumpy old man. I’ve spent a lifetime cultivating an appreciation for careful thinking and original writing, two things I aspire to when working on a column but don’t always accomplish.

I’m just asking that those people who speak and write for a wide audience work a little harder at communicating. Think a little more. Don’t be afraid to use a thesaurus. Express individuality. Use wording that is fresher. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Reminder: The Friends of the Los Banos Library’s Small Art Sale and Social is Thursday. Friends still have tickets, including Joanne at the Phoenix Bookstore, 936 Sixth St. 209 826-3797.

John Spevak is a resident of Los Banos; he wrote this for the Los Banos Enterprise. Email john.spevak@gmail.com.