Five Words We Should Banish from our Vocabulary, Or Preventing Verbicide with C.S. Lewis

As a voracious reader and great lover of language, C.S. Lewis was concerned about “verbicide,” what he called the “murder of words.” As Lewis describes in Studies in Words (7-8), verbicide happens in a number of ways:

  • Inflation of a Word’s Value: “Inflation is one of the commonest; those who taught us to say awfully for ‘very’, tremendous for ‘great’, sadism for ‘cruelty’, and unthinkable for ‘undesirable’ were verbicides.”
  • Fake Superlatives: “Another way is verbiage, by which I here mean the use of a word as a promise to pay which is never going to be kept. The use of significant as if it were an absolute, and with no intention of ever telling us what the thing is significant of, is an example. So is diametrically when it is used merely to put opposite into the superlative.”
  • Politics and Advertising: “Men often commit verbicide because they want to snatch a word as a party banner, to appropriate its ‘selling quality’. Verbicide was committed when we exchanged Whig and Tory for Liberal and Conservative.”
  • Show vs. Tell: “But the greatest cause of verbicide is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them. Hence the tendency of words to become less descriptive and more evaluative; then to become evaluative, while still retaining some hint of the sort of goodness or badness implied; and to end up by being purely evaluative—useless synonyms for good or for bad. We shall see this happening to the word villain in a later chapter. Rotten, paradoxically has become so completely a synonym for ‘bad’ that we now have to say bad when we mean ‘rotten’.”

We can see here that Lewis has some similar concerns as George Orwell in his “Politics and the English Language.” Words can be politicized or bent into the service of those who are peddling products or ideas. 2016 was particularly ripe as it was a deeply divisive political year (Brexit, Trump, ISIS, etc.).

Beyond the capital-P politics of the moment, though, is the social reality of a culture that is running out of effective superlatives. I find myself saying “super duper interesting.” How have I come this far? “Fine” is a loaded term, and “very” doesn’t do what we need it to do. And when we need a word because it is so very relevant–like “Trumpery,” or “truth,” or “evidence,” or “third way”–we find that it has died too, or has been nefariously co-opted.

It is not just a verbicidal age, but we are verbicides: we are word-killing maniacs wandering around the digital library of culture with guns for tongues.

Lewis warns us that we cannot recover these words by simply returning to the past, though there are some authors who have a nice way of helping good readers recover words. Wait for someone to mispronounce an uncommon word, and you will find a good reader who is courageously trying out a word or phrase in real life, never having heard it said out loud before.

Instead, Lewis suggests that we “resolve that we ourselves will never commit verbicide” (Studies in Words, 8). When we see words going bad–he mentioned “adolescent” as synonymous with “bad” and “contemporary” as synonymous with “good”–he suggests that “we should banish them from our vocabulary” (Studies in Words, 8). In so banishing words under societal threat, the best of these words might finally die and find new life (as his two examples, which are now more technical words). I’m suggesting, then, five words that are either on death row or being hunted by the hangman’s dogs.

1. Literally

I don’t know when “seriously” came into my mind with a Sweet Valley High accent, but when I hear the word “literally,” I now add that mindless, Mean Girls SoCal pain-streaked whine. “Literally?” Literally.

I suspect that “seriously” was McKidnapped in hte mid-90s, but we have been killing “literally” for a very long time. In pop culture and politics, this word was decimated long ago, becoming a synonym for “actually” or just a mindless verbal tick. I’m hardly the first to notice this–see SlateThe Guardian, NPR, and Boston.com. They didn’t literally beat me to the punch, but they did so metaphorically.

But this word has been bastardized in a second way. Almost anyone who says these phrases–“I only read the Bible literally” or “We can’t take the Bible literally”–have no idea what they are talking about. Literally. Actually.

Note: the guys in the video stole my idea before I said it out loud. Those sensitive to crude language might want to quit after 60 seconds or so. And here is a guy great at Plinko and very bad at “literally.” Totally.

2. Unique

Some words are simply digital: they have an on/off relationship to language. While we might say, “she’s the chief mind in that organization,” we never say “she is the very chief mind….” Or we shouldn’t, because it is dumb.

Yet, as of late, I hear phrases like:

  • sort of an absolute decision
  • kind of the main thing
  • that speech was utterly meaningless
  • the car is very stationary

I suppose we could defend phrases like “nearly worthless” and “almost unanimous,” if we had to. But do we want to have a phrase like “sorta pregnant?” Pregnancy is digital, on/off, even if it sneaks up on you. Besides, how often do you want to go around asking women how pregnant they are? Bad plan. If you don’t know, you probably shouldn’t ask.

This is the case with “unique.” It is an incomparable adjective, and should be left alone as one. Something is either unique or in some degree of commonplace. Now we hear, “very unique,” “kind of unique,” and, I’m afraid, “literally unique.”

Actually, that last one could work if people knew how to use “literally.” Sort of absolutely I guess.

I don’t know if this garbled toungueship is related to a culture that finds meaning in phrases like, “there is no absolute truth” or “language is a system of signs for which there is no ultimate meaning.” Or maybe we are just lazy. Either way, let’s banish “unique” and try to describe what we mean instead of just telling it. We may get this one back some day, but in a bigly world like ours, it is a poor thing to hope for.

3. Allegory 

Okay, I admit it. I’m soapboxing here a little bit. I get tired of people using the word “allegory” for almost any literature with symbolic layers.

The most tiresome–but most understandable–accusation of allegory comes against The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but critics have said the same of The Lord of the Rings. Sauron’s Ring was suspected of being a secret representation of the nuclear bomb or the armies of Germany or the post-industrial technocracy that descended upon Europe. While Tolkien admitted that myth-making sometimes requires allegorical language (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 145), he disliked allegory and did not use it as a technique in LOTR.

Tolkien did use allegory in Leaf by Niggle, as Lewis used it in Pilgrim’s Regress. They knew how to use allegory, and knew where there were allegorical elements in their work. Lewis even wrote an academic treatise on the topic, and I argued in “Is Narnia an Allegory?” that he knew what he was talking about. We should consider listening to them.

However, people usually mean something a little different when they connect allegory to works like Narnia or LOTR–and more recently to Harry Potter, the works of Madeleine L’Engle and Ursula K. Le Guin, and, believe it or not, Margaret Atwood‘s Handmaid’s Tale, now in a miniseries. Sometimes they just mean that there is “something going on” in the text. Father Time and Aslan are obviously meaning-filled characters in Narnia. Harry Potter is a Christ figure, and Charles Wallace, well–something’s off with that weird little dude. Le Guin is a feminist tale-teller, and Atwood brings all the history of abuse against women into a single post-apocalyptic regime. There’s something going on here.

If people want to call those things allegory, there’s not much we can do. Both Tolkien and Lewis joked that anyone who wants to find allegory in a text is bound to find it. At best it’s a literary face at the bottom of the well; at worst, it’s ignorance.

But sometimes people really mean “that book is bad” when they say “that book is an allegory.” I know that seems like a stretch, but the logic is clear:

  1. I don’t like allegory.
  2. I don’t like Book X (Narnia, LOTR, fantasy, feminist books, books with lots of words).
  3. Therefore, Book X is an allegory.

Seriously, literally, I heard someone say, “Animal Farm can’t be allegory because I loved that book.” Okay folks, let’s commit to only using “allegory” if we have a clue what we are talking about.

And for a chuckle, check this out.

4. Almost Any Prefix or Suffice to “Truth”

Have you encountered a Truther lately? Usually, this refers to someone who passionately believes something despite public opinion or the most obvious evidence. Truthers are different than people who believe against evidence (e.g., that the Toronto Maple Leafs will ever win the Stanley Cup) or those who go against public opinion (e.g., those that believe that it is worth providing rural kids with a great education).

Truthers combine conspiracy with puzzling intellectual oddities. 9/11 Truthers were interesting, coming both as a government conspiracy and an anti-Bush phenomenon. There is something that connects anti-vaxers, birthers, the Obama-as-antichrist crowd, and the Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists. I don’t have any doubt they have a desire for the truth, but this truth isn’t related to the evidence that is in front of us.

These folks are different than those who peddle “truthiness.” The spin doctors of politicians and celebritities have done their work vivisecting the word “truth,” so that it is unclear that it has any meaning left. So we end up now in a world where President Trump on Sunday can rip the comments of the grieving Mayor of London radically out of context, and we can’t expect any accountability for a president willing to speak with such committed ignorance and carelessness. Why should we? We live in a post-truth world. What’s evidence, fact, or even common decency got to do with it when you have the most powerful opinion and 154,231 twitter fans?This moment has not been helped by the Truth o’ Meter folks. And, honestly, the death of truth has been sped along by the media calling every misstatement in the last election a “lie” when they are against a candidate and “untruth” when they are for them.

Since nuance is impossible–and since any culture watcher knows this all leads to some sort of catastrophe–I call for a ban on mistreating the word “truth.” No words like truthiness, truthicity, trutharama, truthopolis, truth-gate, post-truth, quasi-truth, truth o’ meter, truther, trutheses, truthpocalypse, or truthishness.  We’re going to need that word at some point. I suppose, though, I am a loser for expecting the truth.

Data

This one is quite dear to me, and we may not yet be at the point of needing complete banishment. We are certainly at a point where there is a hunger for data and statistics. I have contributed to this myself, posting blogging data (here and here) and my reading data (see 2016 here). In case someone accuses me of being a flip-flopper, I’ll admit that I love a flowchart, graph, or statistical chart as much as the next guy. So this one is a bit of a self-check, in case I too may be in danger of verbicide.

“Big data” has become a real factor in thinking about public policy, investment, higher education, and immigration reform. There are new reports daily about a million different questions, and I do my best to follow the trends as they pop up in government data, surveys, and other types of research. And I’m not alone: “data” was a 2016 buzzword on a number of lists.

Intriguingly, this is a trend that seems to run exactly counter to the post-truth/truthiness/truther deal. People want data to help them read the cultural moment, and to a certain degree data can be helpful. But I think there are three dangers.

  1. Danger the First: Data is Most Useful for Longterm Trends: As people clamour for data to new questions that pop up–such as what happens if DC goes bankrupt, Brazil’s economy globalizes, the UK leaves Europe, or 100,000 international students change their destination from the U.S. to other countries–they don’t always get that some of our questions just don’t have data that goes back very far. Reading data takes patience and the wisdom of time: if you don’t have these, you might as well just make things up. It is, after all, just the assertion of data that can get you put in a position of power.
  2. Danger the Second: Most People Misunderstand Data: This is particularly true of survey data. Why did the media (with exceptions) get the 2016 election and the Brexit vote wrong? Because they don’t understand how the numbers work. People should simply stop looking to data if they haven’t taken the time to understand it.
  3. Danger the Second: People Aren’t Data Points: This is the biggest danger. While data on Millennials tells us interesting things about a generation, strictly speaking no individual is a “Millennial”–the perfect example of the whole age. Trends are too big and people too individual for data to tell us what is happening in the human heart. I suspect that Brexit and the Trump election both come down to this single point: it felt to many that the liberal elite didn’t understand what everyday life is like for normal folk. It is pretty hard to predict what any one person does, even if we can make some guesses in the aggregate. And sometimes it is the individual that matters.

Those are my five words that we should set out to pasture. What words have you had enough of? Or what words do you wish you had back? Let me know in the comments, on Twitter @BrentonDana, or on Facebook.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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42 Responses to Five Words We Should Banish from our Vocabulary, Or Preventing Verbicide with C.S. Lewis

  1. joviator says:

    In our language where words get inflated because everyone wants the things they’re doing to be more important than they are, I am amused to see that one word has actually deflated. The word “decimate” now seems to mean wiping out nine-tenths, when it used to be only one tenth.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Summer says:

    Great post and great list. I would add the word “impacted.” I remember when I started to hear the use of this word as meaning “affected” (“Mr. So-and-so was impacted by the train accident.”) My mother, an English teacher of 42 years, was outraged and said that “the only two things that can be IMPACTED are teeth and bowels.” I think of her statement every time I hear someone used that word now.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Virginia says:

    INTEGRITY. I miss integrity across the spectrum (politics, business, life in general?) Not much buzz these days for integrity, but we sure need more of it in our whacked out world.

    Like

  4. salooper57 says:

    Fun essay, and helpful. I was pulled up short by Lewis’s comment on the word, “significant.” Or, rather, I was charged, found guilty and strung up.

    Like

  5. Aonghus Fallon says:

    There was an English sports commentator who was given to malapropisms. His name was Coleman, and his gaffes became known as Colemanballs. I still remember reading a compilation of them, with accompanying cartoons ( ‘he’s literally carrying the whole team on his shoulders,’ being a stand-out).

    Re allegory. I guess defining something as allegory often comes down to the author’s intentions? There may be a subtext, but it’s unintentional – or not, as the case may be. For example, I know Tolkien didn’t regard LOTR as allegorical, but most readers would reckon that, as a lot of it was written during WWII, then that situation coloured his outlook.

    In general, I think for allegory to be effective, it has to be consistent – that is, it should be about one specific issue, rather than a multitude of issues, and by extension that it should be internally consistent.

    Like

    • Colemanballs, well done.
      As far as allegory goes, I don’t mean that authorial intention is the most important category in literature in general. In allegory, I would look for symbolic representation that has either allegorical characters or a one-to-one relationship between some abstract concept and a concrete reality in the work of art.
      Tolkien did recognize that the war (both wars) affected his work. And there is contextual meaning: the European war shaped the context of meaning for LOTR, but it isn’t allegory (one-to-one relationships). For example, Gollum struggles with addiction, but it isn’t an allegory about addiction. The ring is about nefarious power, but it isn’t an allegory of power. This is hard to do in a few words!

      Like

  6. Screwtape invented “verbicide”, and then told them how to do it …
    “But what with the weekly press and other such weapons we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” of “false”, but as “academic” or “practical”, “outworn” or “contemporary”, “conventional” or “ruthless”. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous–that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.”

    Like

  7. Jared Johnson says:

    A former boss would constantly use “relative” when he needed to say “relevant.” It’s less frequent now (at least, in my circles), than 5-10 years ago, but “irregardless” just irks me to no end.

    And I SO enjoyed your list of “-truth-” variants!

    Like

    • That switch of words makes me think of spoonerisms. I sinned in the “irregardless” vein with a grammarly type person.
      I worked on the truth-variants.

      Like

    • valeri says:

      My youngest son uses this to me Just to get a reaction, though he knows better. I have become the local grammar police. Makes me CRAZY the way our language is abused and misused. My middle son says “Language is a living thing, it changes.” as if this Justifies any and every use of any word.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. tphillman says:

    only five?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. wanderwolf says:

    I don’t want to be guilty of verbicide!
    A word my dad has a problem with is “technically.” Similar to literally, he feels it is used too often in an inappropriate sense. That said, he’s an engineer, so technically has a specific meaning for him.

    Like

  10. Hannah says:

    Thanks for your post on the devaluation of language! It is something I have been thinking a lot about lately.
    How would you define the difference between allegory and metaphor? In the book “Literature through the eyes of faith” Gallagher & Lundin deal at length with the importance of metaphors in the understanding and describing of reality.
    They also show that data can only be understood within a context, being meaningless without it.
    And the importance of the relationship between words and things. Through the centuries the meaning of words has shifted from being created by God and rooted in His creation (in the Middle Ages everything was even seen as a word of God) to “language being only a custom-based system of signs for which there is no ultimate meaning” with “only a random or arbitrary relationship of words to things”.

    Like

    • Sorry, I’m so late on this. Metaphor is any kind of relational connection between two things where one of them isn’t literal. Allegory connects metaphorical items in one-to-one relationships. So a character like Reason represents the idea of reason or reasonableness. I don’t know if the technical definitions work well without examples! But, yes, words shift, sometimes turning entirely around (as decimate, below, or the word “discover”).

      Like

  11. L.A. Smith says:

    Not a specific word, but a trend: using nouns as verbs. First noticed this in radio ads, when the announcer would say something like, “New pricing for 2017 on all vehicles!”

    And is it totally, absolutely, literally politically incorrect to even mention using the pronoun “their” for a singular person? So as to avoid gender? Like, “Susan had to go to the store to get milk. They found it on sale. They were (was?) happy.”

    *putitng on flak jacket and running for cover*

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      “It out-Herods Herod. Pray you, avoid it.” (The first time, or even used sparingly, it can be arrestingly poetic. Once it’s a trend… is there any stopping it?)

      And then there’re things like: ‘Almost everyone goes to the store to get milk. Sometimes, he finds it on sale.’ In danger of distracting! ‘Sometimes, one finds it on sale.’ Too…? ‘Sometimes, she or he finds it on sale’ and variants: a bit too clunky? ‘Sometimes, you find it on sale.’ Hmm… ‘Any and everyone go to the store for milk. Sometimes, they find it on sale.’ Whew, found something unspecific where ‘they’ was possible, and yet…

      Like

      • I should have kept a list, but I read a lot of 1900-1960 lit. Even then, the he/they thing was a mix up from time to time. Plus there is the contemporary safety in “they.” Sometimes genders are unclear, or de-designated.

        Like

  12. valeri says:

    Can we PLEASE eliminate the word Awesome? God is Awesome, and according to a physics professor we knew “a Quasar in your bathtub is awesome”, but very little else is. Yet I hear it a thousand times a day, describing everything from a tuna melt to the speaker’s BFF’s attire. Like the word “gentleman” in Lewis’ time, this one is used so often in so many ways that it has become meaningless. Literally.

    Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Some people’s sense of awe does seem easily inspired… I still like the thought of God being awful (“Inspiring awe; worthy of profound respect”: a 1974 reprint of the Concise Oxford Dictionary – but I don’t think one could have said that in 1974 with high expectations of effectiveness).

      Like

  13. keithakenny says:

    Like totally awesome, dude! No, seriously, some cogent observations highlighted with excellent examples.

    In an aside in “Eugene Onegin”, Alexander Pushkin, who was considered the greatest Russian poet of his age, comments about people finding allegories, metaphors, and all life’s meaning in his writing … things he never intended or could find himself. He called it “finding wit and wisdom in his whimsy,” and shrugged.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Jane Edmonds says:

    Brenton, how Eddie would have loved this blog, especially if it was called an essay — Jane.

    On Tue, Jun 6, 2017 at 9:37 AM, A Pilgrim in Narnia wrote:

    > Brenton Dickieson posted: “As a voracious reader and great lover of > language, C.S. Lewis was concerned about “verbicide,” what he called the > “murder of words.” As Lewis describes in Studies in Words (7-8), verbicide > happens in a number of ways: Inflation of a Word’s Value: “In” >

    Liked by 1 person

  15. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I agree about “literally unique” as an attempt to say “unique” amidst the instances of “very unique” and “kind of unique” and such-like.

    And I have been enjoying instances of merry-making over “Literally Hitler”.

    I like the idea of saying “she is the very chief mind….” in an older-fashioned sense (in contrast with one or another “chief mind, so called, but not so indeed”).

    “Lewis warns us that we cannot recover these words by simply returning to the past”. I sometimes wonder if something is an instance of this in his practice, like his interesting use of ‘chests’ in The Abolition of Man: “Men without Chests”. Could an earlier writer have enjoyed rhetorical success using something with ‘breast’ in this context, while Lewis realized that would be impossible in practice in the 1940s? ‘Breast’ had been murdered for such purposes. (Not dissimilarly, I wonder if ‘Aslan’ was chosen rather than the cognate ‘Arslan’, because in 1940s Britain one could not have used the later without risk of sniggers, because of ‘arse’.

    I’ve seen the Mayor of London widely quoted (e.g,, by AP) as also saying, “I’m reassured we are one of the safest global cities in the world” or something similar (“I’m reassured that we are one of the safest global cities in the world if not the safest global city in the world”). Is this one of those cases of ‘data’? What sort of thing is that to say, and in that way? Does it imply some basis of (there’s that word again) true knowledge? If so, what sort of knowledge? I’ve seen someone observe, in discussing it, “statistically the chances of being caught up in such atrocities are very small”. If that is so, just what and how much is that saying about ‘safety’? How reassuring should that be, and why? After the previous bridge attack, he said, “one of the reasons why I think we are the safest global city in the world, and one of the safest cities in the world, is because we’ve got brave officers like Keith Palmer” – the unarmed Police Constable who was stabbed to death. How different is “think we are” and “reassured we are”?

    Who was it who talked about passing “some basic truthiness tests” again, and in what context?

    Like

  16. This was a much needed post, literally (haha!). I’m a bit tired of hearing “actually” and the imbecilic “like.” Like really, you know?

    Like

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  18. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Some fascinating discussion of allegory, here, by Dr. Groves, with recommended reading, as well!:

    http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/guest-post-3-the-harrying-of-hell-the-harrowing-in-philosophers-stone-and-deathly-hallows-beatrice-groves/#more-14436

    Like

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