A proactive, impactful look at words I despise
By GINA BARRECA | The Hartford Courant (Tribune News Service) | Published: May 1, 2015
Although I love language, there are certain words that make me break out in hives. I have an allergic reaction when I see or hear them: I shiver as my temperature rises, I turn a mottled shade somewhere between mauve and crimson and my jaw clamps shut.
Like poison ivy, these often appear in clumps. Most recently, I’ve walked into thickets and groves of the following toxic terms: “disrupt” “cohort,” “synergy,” “lifestyle,” “wheelhouse” “iconic,” “branding” “curated,” “vocalize,” “artisanal,” “impactful” and “relatable.”
“Toxic” should probably be there, too.
What’s wrong with these words? Individually and in their native habitats, they’re fine. “Vocalize” is dandy, fitting snugly into the world of music; as my friend Jana explains, “Vocalize should be restricted only to use by singers, who associate very specific meanings and actions to the word.” She goes on to ask, “What term is the corporate world going to appropriate next — ‘audiate’?”
But when my students write, “Jane Eyre vocalized her inner emotions to Mr. Rochester” I underline “vocalized” as well as “inner emotions” and insist they write something more text-specific, precise and informative. “What do you mean and why is it important?” is what I usually ask.
By the third rewrite, they usually know what they mean and they know how to say it.
I’ve learned, after 28 years of teaching, that “vocalize,” like “relatable,” is a dodge: It is an intellectual sleight of hand. If a student defines a character as “relatable,” I ask: Does that mean he’s sympathetic, intriguing, recognizable, emotionally complex, cliched, seductive, likable, familiar, accessible or perspicuous? If my student says, “Yeah, that’s right — relatable” I know she hasn’t done any of the reading.
Overused or misused words become bankrupted of whatever original meanings they might have had. Used to obscure rather than to clarify ideas, they don’t express thought but instead divert attention away from the fact that the person using the term employs it as an act of camouflage, disguising his or her inability to say what needs saying.
“Proactive,” for example, should be struck from our vocabulary.
Why? Because it means “active.” A friend, who knows that “proactive” is anathema to me, said, “I want to motivate my staff. I tell them to be ‘proactive.’ What other words can I use?”
“How about asking them to be enthusiastic, energetic, engaged, insightful or thoughtful? Even better, how about asking them to do what you really want? You want their focused attention? Ask for it. You want them to tell you practical ways in which they can do their jobs better? Make it possible for them to be direct and honest in their responses and then make the changes they suggest.”
You don’t have to “implement” “fundamental paradigm shifts” as an “influencer” to “ensure sustainable best practices” by “mobilizing your resources” in an “accelerated” “idea-driven” and “powerfully transformative” “watershed event” with “high-stakes” “holistic” “modeling behavior” creating an “organic,” “abundant” and “quantifiably,” if not “dazzling,” “win-win” environment that will be so “mindful” and “balanced” that “gurus” and “unicorns” from throughout the “blogosphere” will applaud the “mission and mandate” your “revolutionizing vision” will have on “setting a gold standard.”
Next in line for execution (as in “to be exterminated” not as in “being put to use”) are feeble conversational caveats such as “I just wanted to say,” “No offense, but,” “Can I just mention that” and “I don’t know if you’d agree, but...”
When folks begin sentences this way I want to shout, “If you’re going to say something dull, uninformed or belligerent, don’t apologize in advance. Either stand up for what’s coming out of your mouth or wait until you know what you think before you speak.”
Also deserving to be driven out of our vocabularies with pitchforks and torches are the following: “moving forward,” “circle back,” “content driven,” “low-hanging fruit,” “hash-tagging,” “out-of-the-box,” “thought leader,” “take-away” and “come together.” (Of this last one, my friend Rose Valenta quips “Are we all practicing our Kegel exercises now?”)
Of course the “ize” have it: “optimize,” “monetize,” “galvanize,” “strategize,” “prioritize,” “incentivize,” “globalize” and “utilize.”
Why use “utilize” when you can use “use”?
If you love language, treat it with respect, honor and intimacy. Play with it, but never treat it lightly.
And never, ever use the word “impactful.”
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant. She can be reached through her www.ginabarreca.com.
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