Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Use it or lose it: A New Year's plea

If I could make New Year’s resolutions for other writers, this one would head the list: Don’t use a word and then tell your readers what a worthless word it is.

Don't do what New York Times film reviewer A.O. Scott did in his April 2013 obituary for Roger Ebert: "He was platform agnostic long before that unfortunate bit of jargon was invented."

Or what Teddy Wayne did it in the the NYT's Future Tense column in February, writing about his holiday from technology: "I also briefly experienced the famous 'fear of missing out,' a.k.a, annoyingly, FOMO." 

Don't do as author Evgeny Morozov did when he complained, in a May NYT book review, of the ubiquity of  "the ugly, jargony name of Big Data." 

Or as columnist Maureen Dowd has twice done, using (while deploring) the political sense of "optics." In January 2013, she said the shortage of women in the Administration was "more than an 'optics' problem, to use the irritating cliché of the moment." In October 2014, she wrote that "the White House thought [a female Secret Service head] would be good optics  -- that most egregious word." (But not egregious enough to omit.)

Why the desperate need to distance themselves from neologisms? Maybe these writers -- all, as it happens, from the pages of the New York Times -- were trying to head off criticism from Philip B. Corbett, the paper’s usage watchdog. By preemptively criticizing the jargon, they can have it both ways: They get to use a trendy expression and simultaneously disavow it. (Pro tip: If you really don’t think a word should exist, don’t give it currency in the New York Times.)

But I think there’s anxiety, not just distaste, behind these disavowals. If language is your expertise, you don’t want to be the last one to notice a lexical fad has run its course. Hence the preemptive apologies: Just in case this is old hat, I already hate it!

Scott, in fact, has waffled on "platform agnostic." He used it without comment in 2007, when he was quoting the New Yorker. And seven months after he called it "unfortunate jargon," it was back in  his good graces: In fall 2013, he wrote of filmmakers determined "to figure out, in a post-film, platform-agnostic, digital-everything era, what the art of cinema might be."

MoDo, meanwhile, used "optics" without apology in 2009 ("what his aide Anita Dunn calls 'the optics'"), again in 2010 ("Michelle’s optics sent a message that likely made some …wince" ), and in 2012 (Dominique Strauss-Kahn "ignored the bad optics"). But three times was her limit: Only months later, "optics" had become that "irritating cliche."

This looks suspiciously like journalistic FOMO -- fear of missing out on the moment a popular term turns has-been. But there's a simple remedy: Call the word passé whenever you use it, and nobody can beat you to the punch. 

This isn't just a journalistic worry. Lists of peeves, like the annual banned words list from Lake Superior State University, always include slang and jargon with plenty of miles left on them (curate, anyone? Or takeaway?). The word-banning enthusiasts, though, are always ready to tell us our favorite phrases are so over, if only we laggards had the wit to see it. 

But grownup journalists shouldn't be playing that game. If  "optics" or "FOMO" offends your sensibilities, it's usually simple enough to skip it, rather than make it an occasion to flaunt your taste. There are enough people out there who pride themselves on their language peevery. They don’t need encouragement from professionals.