“Time changes all things; there is no reason why language should escape this universal law.” – Ferdinand de Saussure, Swiss linguist
One word tends to exhibit shady, quasi-fraudulent nitwit tendencies, one’s a newly diagnosed bi-polar, while the last word is – to put it delicately – continually on a fruitless quest to love herself for who she really is (or thinks she is, whatever that means). Together, this band of ubiquitous drifters should be the first to go. A no-brainer, really. Want proof? According to a joint Harvard/Google study, the English language contains over one million words and this number is expected to climb at the rate of 8,500 per year1. Utterly ridiculous, this reproducing verbiage. Clearly, to preserve future freedom of linguistic space, a handful of words should be retired at regular intervals, no matter their popular standing. For various valid reasons, checked off at the front of the line should be a few traditionally overhyped heavyweights: expert, bad, and beauty.
Let’s begin with a sinking fastball: what does being an ‘expert’ really entail? Does it accrue through education, experience in a given field, age, originality? The way this word is so casually tossed about, like baby powder on a windy day, it’s as if it floats high up in some mystical aura, its authenticity left unquestioned. As for schooling, after which level can this tag legitimately be applied – university undergrad, masters, PhD? What about informal training – parental advice, trial and error, big brother beat-downs, and the like? Then there’s the experience factor: the more practice accumulated, the more an ‘expert’ one may become in … failing drug tests, eating too much, or any other misadventure – hardly the intended boilerplate for expertise. Doctors don’t “practice medicine” by mistake. Then there’s this: Does one automatically become a life expert after a certain age? Likely, no. Just ask Nick Nolte. And what about the self-proclaimed experts? The local Walmart whippersnapper clerk-entrepreneur, for example, who whispers at the checkout that she’s an ‘expert’ on the use of profanity – even has her own website, The Expletive Expert. Hey, Profanity sells – She’s the expert! Ah yes, some expert advice here: this word is misleading at best, and should be flushed away with the rest of the dirties.
Next up we have the unpredictable alley cat-of-a-word, bad – a fighting, bruising, clawing and brawling word if there ever is one. One minute it’s negative – I had a bad tummy ache after eating those brownies – and the next, it’s reeking of envy – Yo dude, those are some bad-looking Air Jordan’s you’re sportin’! Totally erratic. The word ‘hot’ is similar, but it falls below this threshold because – unlike hot – the word ‘bad’ has evolved to infer polar opposite definitions dependant on situational factors, thus creating a basis for confusion. What’s more, this one-syllabler can actually take on these extreme personalities in the same Goddamn sentence – Listen, smokin’ the rope-a-dope is bad, son! No wonder society is teetering on the edge, toes dangling. All extremist-leaning, dual-meaning words should be dumped in a landfill somewhere, and since this word seems to be the simplest, shortest, and most troublesome, it should actually volunteer to be the first to jump the linguistic ship.
Finally, we have the controversial ‘beautiful’ – granted, a beauty of a word – but that’s just the point. What is beauty? For starters, the word itself is too commercialized, subjective, melodramatic, and even, it could be argued, a tad judgemental. Advertisers absolutely fawn over this word, and why wouldn’t they? And if you adore something, what do you do? You share it – you might even push it into the subconscious of others and force them to inhale it. What a beautiful day – (Now, go out and enjoy it!) The burlap cloth feed sack flowery quilts on display are beautiful, and would make a really pretty … umm, beautiful … baby shower gift! (It’s implied that if you don’t pony up, you’re somehow an insensitive, frugal spreader of misery who couldn’t give a rat’s ass about what others think.)
The word itself is also very subjective, and even disproving. Home furnishing boutiques and clothing outlets are particularly addicted to the ‘beautiful’ allure. Hey, buy this beautifully matching sofa and love seat combo – what you have now is obviously crap and not beautiful at all. There’s also this trend in business of ‘redefining’ what beauty is. Cosmetic marketers do this, as do automobile designers.
Expert opinion: If the stated definition of a word changes – that is, if it’s redefined – it stands to reason that maybe it’s not that good a word to begin with. Maybe the word itself should undergo a thorough psychological assessment and perhaps, take a sabbatical. Excluding scientific terms, the English language contains approximately 500,000 words. Use some imagination. Bon voyage, beauty!
Now admittedly, the latter two choices are controversial. The word ‘bad’ has always been wildly popular, and ‘beauty’ can be tremendously sentimental and priceless. It would pull at the heartstrings to pull this particularly attractive adjective – even temporarily – from the English lexicon. But think about the fine art of naming babies for a moment, and how specific names tend to rise and fall in terms of generational popularity. Names like Mildred and Gertrude – nothing wrong with these beauties – waned in popularity following the Roaring Twenties, only to be revived, and appreciated, decades later. And if it’s true that absence makes the heart grow fonder, perhaps some kind of hiatus would, upon their return, make our collective hearts beat all that more stronger.
And before you dismiss this notion as mere battery acid for the brain, a precedent has been set. Certain racial slurs have rightfully been banned from mainstream Western media, and while this is a much more serious and passionate case, it does raise the question as to whether, as managers, our media could – in an effort to consistently field a fresh line-up – lead the charge in rotating certain fraudulent, disturbed, or hysterical words in and out of our linguistic roster.
1 This figure excludes newly patented OTC prescription drug names, hard-to-remember high-tech trademarked names, nauseatingly long or difficult to spell surnames, really stupid celebrity pet/child names (more on this in a bit), recently discovered star names, and any rap album song titles – as well as any newly discovered ice cream flavours.
Jonathan Pollard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.