On Watch by Marcus Fisk

The Right Word = The Right Gift

Marcus Firk's pet peeves may fall on deaf ears given the expansive acceptance of “new” words that have gained traction in America. What do you think about them?

This work is by Steve Mark, an amazing cartoonist, animator, and puppeteer. Each year he sends out a new creation for the holidays. (likefatherlikesoncomics.wordpress.com/)

Alexandra, VA – The Holiday Season is upon us and many of us will shop online and hope to have the gifts arrive in time for the holidays. The tough part, like not finding the right size, color, style, or specific item, will undoubtedly send us to the “customer service” link designed to keep us occupied while tying up our funds. Feels like ‘tis the season not to be jolly, but to frustrate us into submission. (1)

I don’t know when it started exactly, but since the electronic “service” industry exploded in the 1990s, few companies have a complaint department anymore. They have softened that idea by using fluffier buzzwords—like “customer service.” Often one can’t even speak to a real person because of the all-powerful electron.

My major complaint, however, isn’t about the travails of returning or exchanging a gift. It’s not about the carnivorous culture of retail America at this time of year. Sure, I may be bummed about receiving a cardigan instead of a pullover from ordering online, but I have reserved my real complaints in 2020 for flagrant abuses of the English language.

My pet peeves may fall on deaf ears given the expansive acceptance of “new” words that have gained traction in America. The fact that I attended an Engineering school should not detract from my premise, however, that Americans have beaten the English language into submission and that the business, entertainment, and sports industries are responsible for its decay. Consider the following:

Starting a sentence with an adverb: “Actually” – as in “Actually, I drove a Ferrari to the prom.” In the 1980s spreading news or a bit of gossip was met with a “Really!” (2) Help me out here English teachers, but I think this one is a no-no.

“Really unique,” or any variation such as totally unique, very unique, etc.). I always thought that unique was just that – unique. There are no levels indicating a quantity of uniqueness. Unique is strong and stands alone. No modifier.

“150%” (or more): I suppose this is to express enthusiastic support for something, but as a Naval Academy graduate, I have a tough time with anything over 100%. Even though I am also a writer who enjoys dallying in the other side of my brain, this one escapes me altogether.

Adding a prefix to perfectly good words to make them sound more intellectual: Irreparable works. So does insufficient. But what is gained by adding “in” to “flammable” or “ir” to regardless? Doesn’t inflammable mean the same as flammable? Isn’t “irregardless” a double negative that actually means “regard”? Am I missing something here?

Deep Thought Words: There is a tradition in Metro DC-area think tanks of making words seem more resplendent and mightier than their perfectly applicable predecessors. Strategy gurus (also called “Gray Beards” to denote their sagacity) who think deep thoughts on national policy are among the finest word midwives in the world. Their pontificatory (3) efforts have birthed U.S. Government buzzwords like “transformational change” and “robust” and “synergistic” and my favorite, “Paradigm.” How we ever survived as a nation without words like these ensuring our leadership position in the world, I’ll never know.

“Honestly” rarely is. I may have picked this up in Psychology Today or some similar publication. People who lead off most sentences with “honestly” or “truthfully” tend to be the opposite—particularly the case with the politicos here in the greater Metro DC region.

Some of my favorite malapropos words are completely out of sync with their true meaning.

“Make a difference.” It seems that many of us are trying or are encouraged to “make a difference” in this zany world of ours. A wonderful gesture, making a positive difference, which I’m sure is the intent of the phrase. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. History is replete with examples of people who have made a negative difference. Pick your favorite dictator(s). They made a difference. Is it time to put this phrase to rest?

“Toxic.” This is an example of “if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times—don’t exaggerate.” We have all experienced unpleasant situations. Horrible supervisors who skipped management class, the obstinate counter worker at the DMV, the waiter who finished his shift before bringing your correct entre, even a romantic relationship gone bad. Folks, no matter how unfortunate these may be, they don’t qualify as toxic.

“Viral.” How often have you heard, “This video has gone viral on (pick your favorite web)”? Webster’s defines viral as “relating to or caused by a virus.” How much time do we spend fretting about computer viruses, yet we absolutely love our videos to go viral? In the age of the COVID-19, I’m not sure we want anything going viral. Maybe it’s time to retire this one too.

Now that I have played with your comfort zone in word use (notice I didn’t say “usage”) pause a beat next time you are about to utter one of these. Is there a better word to accurately capture your thought? Perhaps it’s time to return some of these, just like that ugly sweater or Chia-pet. That simple moment of pause and reflection may be – are you ready for it? – a real “game-changer.” (4)

Marcus Fisk is a retired Navy Captain, Naval Academy graduate, sometime actor, sculptor, screenwriter, pick-up soccer player, and playwright. He and his wife Pamela are former of Alexandria and then Connecticut, where they traveled the New England shore in their 42 Grand Banks Trawler ADAGIO. They have now embarked on a grand adventure of living in France. We think.

Endnotes: (1) Does this look familiar? “We’re sorry. That item is out of stock. Return to our website to order another fine gift from our excellent selection of quality gifts by clicking the ‘Back’ button and continue shopping.” (2) The exclamation point was to denote emphatic agreement with the point made by the originator. “Totally was also immensely popular and is still used in some regions of the country, California being the most notable proponent of its use. (3) Pontificatory – Like that one? I just made it up. I wanted you to feel right at home here in the DC Metro area. (4) Ugh. Sorry. I couldn’t help myself.

ICYMI: On Watch – The Real Great American Pastime

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  1. My favorite pet peeve is using verbs as nouns: a gender reveal. The word is revelation, or if that sounds like the Book ofRevelation in the Bible, just use disclose.
    Another one that grates on me every time I see is it is using a plural pronoun when the gender of the single person is not known. For goodness’ sake, how hard is it to say “he or she?” Or referring to a bisexual or transsexual as “they.” Why can’t you use the pronoun that describes the person’s appearance? One person is not they!

  2. Absolutely. You aren’t alone. Since this hit the street many have mentioned additional pet peeves that are more grating than the old chalk on the chalkboard squeal. Thanks!

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