In which readers suggest words and meanings that ought to be left behind at the new year and the site creator overrules them all.


This new year, more than most, seems to be about the "out with the old" half of the cliché. So I asked users of the site to suggest words they'd like to see go into the void along with the year-that-must-not-be-named. Preferably recent and overworked words. Preferably avoiding words associated with some political faction or ideology the suggester hates.

There were some good ones. Many of them were euphemistic weasel-words: issue for "problem," concerning for "worrisome," impact (v.) for "completely bollix up" (leading to the even more grating adjective impactful).

The old heave-ho also was proposed for words that serve only to establish the certainty of a writer or speaker on a matter he or she has no reason to be certain about. Historic and unprecedented tend to mean "as far as I can remember, without trying very hard, during my handful of years on earth." Iconic must have caught the coronavirus, as it is so debilitated now as to mean merely "influential in a small fandom." 

Need as a verb has been so overworked for so long in internet headlines it's in danger of melting down. Adulting (n.), meaning behaving like an adult even though you are one, seems a sad word to admit: A language has to add a word for something when the opposite of that something also becomes common (tonal music).

Obviously for a long time online has meant "what I'm about to claim is not at all obvious, but I don't care to offer evidence or proof, so I'll pre-emptively bully you into feeling stupid if you think about it." Admittedly, it saves space. Interestingly seems to have acquired a similarly annoying sense.

Other people chose words I expect they learned to hate in Zoom meetings. Metrics (which used to mean "the art of versification"). Best practices. How many people who copy tranche really know what they mean by it? I didn't get the hostility to granular until I attended a virtual meeting with someone trying to use web site analytics to dictate everything. Now I'm down with the hostile.

But for my money, the runaway choice is problematic, in the sense it has acquired in this century. As in, "In the '90s I loved watching 'Friends,' but seeing it now I find it problematic."

The Urban Dictionary is good for explaining (and slamming) such words: "used mainly by people who sense that something may be oppressive, but don't want to do any actual thinking about what the problem is or why it exists. Also frequently used in progressive political settings among White People of a Certain Education to avoid using herd-frightening words like 'racist' or 'sexist.' " Or, as another posting puts it, "A tired and passive aggressive word used by sociology majors when they are too afraid to call someone racist, sexist, or homophobic."

Granted, this word tends to be used this way in a certain political/social tranche in the U.S. And in so far as I can read the ideologies of the Urban Dictionary posters, I don't share them (though we might agree on what the problems are). But, as the entries suggest, it is disliked by people further along that spectrum, who find it mealy-mouthed, as much as it is by me.

The old meaning of problematic was "doubtful, questionable, uncertain, unsettled." It comes, ultimately, from Greek problēma, which was "that which is proposed, a question." Something problematic is something awaiting a solution or an answer.

It also had a specific sense in logic, differentiating what is possible from what is necessarily true. The sense of "constituting, containing, or causing a difficulty" is modern, probably from a noun use of the word in sociology (1957), which might be an outgrowth of the sense in logic. The current definition is one step beyond that in the direction of weaseldom. Much of the terminology of modern American politics seems to have been hatched in sociology departments.

The literal (or etymological) notion in Greek problēma was something "put forward" or "thrown out" (for discussion, solution, etc.). The elements are pro "forward" and ballein "to throw." That verb is all over the dictionary, in extended senses, from ballistics, to symbol, to metabolism, to parable, to ballet.

Mittere, unrelated to the Greek word, was the Latin verb for "to throw." The corresponding Roman compound to problēma was promittere "send forth; assure beforehand," which is the source of our promise. Which, in the sense of "that which affords a basis for hope or expectation of future excellence or distinction," is what I wish for you.


Latest stories