The death of meaning

Posted: June 16, 2013 in Words
Tags: , ,

“Politicians made no discernible sense when they spoke, few doctors used the word ‘cancer’ with patients who had it and the word ‘immigrant’ could no longer be prefaced by ‘illegal’. Detach language from meaning and the world was yours.”

The Golden Egg, Donna Leon

I’ve been sitting for a good five minutes trying to decide where to start writing. Thoughts and examples are tumbling through my head and I seem unable to put them in order. Perhaps I’ll just grab onto one at a time as they fly past and throw them onto…not paper…into the ether of the blog? OK, that’s a plan.

(A disclaimer. Nothing political is meant by any examples I choose.)

“Awesome” used to be for the grandeur of mountains; the vast, echoing hallowed spaces of a cathedral; something so incredible it could scarcely be believed. Today, everything is “awesome”. What’s bigger and more expressive than “awesome”? What’s left to use?

Along the same line, although not words, I find myself using lots of exclamation points when responding to things on the internet or in emails. Most responses don’t even require one.

Bad language is another example of the debasement or overuse of words. If you use what used to be called curse or swear words in every sentence, more than once in every sentence or to replace every adjective, what do you use when something really goes wrong or deserves bad language? Get a vocabulary already! (Only one exclamation point there, although I was tempted to go for two.) I saw a Irish movie at the Cleveland International Film Festival a few years ago, a serious and thought-provoking movie, where the word “effi'” was used in virtually every sentence. I detest the “F-word” (a euphemism, I know), but since”effin”didn’t hurt my American ear as much, I was able to concentrate on the movie a bit more. However, it quickly got to the point where I was just waiting for the next use of it.

Somehow, in the cold of recent winters, “global warming” morphed into “climate change” in order to cover anything on the entire plant. I find this more than a little disingenuous.

“Brilliant!” Wonderful for Guinness commercials but can you say “overused”? How many really brilliant bits of writing are there? How many “fabulous” movies? How many “once-in-a-lifetime” experiences?

If you die as “collateral damage”, does that make a difference? Which part of “illegal immigrants” isn’t true? In the abortion debate, one person’s “pro-life” is another person’s “anti-abortion” or “anti-women’s rights.”

One word used most often these days to distract from actual debate is “racism.” Technically racism means one group thinking they’re superior to all other groups not of their race. It’s morphing now into a term only applicable to whites, a great way to keep any disagreement from ever being legitimate.

“Hate crimes” is another term baffling to me. Seems to me that pretty much all crime comes from hate of one sort or another. Also, why not call a “bomber” a “terrorist”? No one’s ever a murderer, either, they’re “shooters” or “bombers” or something that sounds less pejorative.

What words or phrases can you think of that have lost their meaning through overuse, misuse or because they’ve been deliberately changed?

  1. Joe Owens says:

    Too early in the morning for me to think Janet. On abus from Virginia to Florida to get on a cruise ship. I agree with nearly all you said though. We live in a watered down time where every adjective is so overused.🚏

  2. xpat92 says:

    Hi Janet,
    We all get the “blank page” in whatever form. For me, I should say the “blank screen”. I sometimes have no inspiraation for phtographing or my creativity runs dry. Time to resource when that happens and relax yourself in whatever way.


    • In this case, I think it was more that I had quite a few thoughts but the form was a bit inchoate. I wasn’t sure how I wanted to put them all together but I think it finally worked. Thanks for stopping by.


  3. Dear Janet,

    You spoke my mind with eloquence and style. Thank you. Simply awesome, brilliant and fabulous. 😉



  4. bebs1 says:

    “How are you?” is a phrase, not a word but still I am amazed how people overuse it. In fact we say it all the time we meet somebody and it does not matter what we’re doing. We could be running or walking or stationary and yet when we open our mouth that’s the first thing we say devoid of any sincerity as we go through our tasks or continue running/walking without even as much as a stop to hear what the other had to say.

    • Phrases count, too. Even if you’re sincerely asking, the other person almost always says “Fine”, whether they’re fine or not. On the flip side, someone I used to have quite a lot of contact with never responded positive to my sincere query of “How are you?” She always had something negative or, at best, not positive to say. But after saying hello (I usually spoke to her on the phone), it was difficult not to ask how she was, even though I tried very hard. 🙂


  5. brainsnorts says:

    Words also mean a lot less when someone speaks bluntly and honestly, but when others don’t like what we said, we very quickly claim that our words were taken out of context. Or we say that if someone was hurt by what we said, then we apologize. It is as if those statements somehow erase any previous statements. As if it never even happened.

    We sometimes feel very brave when we can put out words and not have to actually face someone. But when someone brings to our attention that what we said was not correct or may have been hurtful, we seem to very quickly distance ourselves from that bravery and bluntness we had when we spoke without thinking.

    • Words can be so powerful that it behooves us to use them wisely and carefully, honestly but if possible, tactfully. It’s hard enough to do that when speaking but with so much communication via email, FB, etc., it’s even more difficult because we have no body language and tone of voice to help interpret meaning. However, if we think before hitting “send”, we can at least have time to re-read and re-think what we said and how it might be received. I’ve had the experience more than once of reading something someone sent me and misinterpreting it (and being hurt by it) and then finding out later that they didn’t mean it the way it came across to me.

      • brainsnorts says:

        that adds another aspect – carelessness. if someone pays enough attention to what they are writing, they should either be able to make sure that the word something carefully enough to avoid misinterpretation. or, if something is going to be “questionable” because of necessary words that can be misinterpreted, then the writer/commenter always has the ability to state, ‘i know this might get misinterpreted, but let me assure you this is not meant in a negative way…” or something in that direction.

        we don’t take responsibility for what we write, say, or do. we view it at disposable and not concrete.

  6. Viveka says:

    Have a nice day … just hate that phrase – because they don’t really care how my day will be after I talked or shopped with them.

    • I try to say something different so that they know I mean it, such as “Enjoy your day”, but they still don’t know that I really do want them to have an enjoyable day because as you’ve pointed out, it’s become automatic for so many.

      Enjoy your Sunday! 🙂


  7. Viveka says:

    By the way … have a great holiday now … and delight yourself.

  8. I find myself using exclamation points as an on-line substitute for a smile or friendly body language and tone of voice! I don’t know whether that’s why other people use them so much or not! What do you think, Janet?!

  9. You covered it pretty “effin” well. 🙂

  10. “Somehow, in the cold of recent winters, “global warming” morphed into “climate change” in order to cover anything on the entire plant. I find this more than a little disingenuous.”

    I just remember it as being “pollution” and a reminder that Earth day was only one day and what about the other 364 days?

    “No problem” has replaced “I’ll be happy to” or “Sure” or “Glad to help”

    “It’s all good” has replaced “Holy crap, Batman”

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