Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A grueling look at the perfect storm of wordgate

In a news article today about this upcoming book, a writer used the word "grueling" in reference to my Last Great Race. Not many readers will realize that was a joke. In the early years and still, writers use that word so often it should be named officially "The Grueling Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race." Partly as a joke and partly as a source of pride, I have written two books and several articles about the race and have never once used the word "grueling." This reporter knows that and put the word in quotes just to make the dig. It's all in good fun as far as I am concerned but it brings up a long-standing issue for me of writers picking up trending words and then using them so often they lose all impact.

Along the same line, not too long ago there was a post on Facebook about grammatical errors and one commenter said he gets furious when someone puts two spaces after a sentence (something new to me when I went back to editing a few years ago). Furious, mind you, over an extra space. There's a fellow headed for a heart attack before he's 40.



After a period of working with those hard and fast grammar and style rules, I learned that lesson. Editing writers from all over Alaska, one of whom actually submitted a story written in crayon on a brown paper grocery bag (remember those?) I learned to hold back on judgments. Many of those writers knew very little about grammar, spelling, syntax or anything else. But what they could do was tell a good story. To edit them I shut off my elitist attitude toward editing and did what I could to make those stories presentable without destroying the writer's voice. I had learned to adjust, fit the rules to the situation, not fit the situation to the rules.

Then, when I first joined Facebook I came across a large number of posts correcting people's grammar and spelling. I even commented in a time or two, unable to resist. But I should have known, in my years as an editor I had learned to leave that habit at the office. Friends and family do not appreciate you constantly correcting them and pretty soon you find you have no one to talk with. Also it seemed to be a sign of a newcomer to the social media to correct those errors or post memes about grammar. After a while it wears thin and then you go on to cute cats or Hillbilly Hangout.

A simple misspelling or a grammatical mistake once in a while became tolerable as long as the message came across all right. The only exception comes when someone who is supposed to be a professional writer consistently makes these mistakes that a comment might be apropos.

More often than those mistakes, though I have noticed those trending words. A writer somewhere will employ a new term for something and before long every writer across the country will be using the same term until it grates on the mind like a loud bell between the ears.

One such fairly recent one is the word "roughly," used to mean about or approximately. Once a story is enough.  Once a day is already too much, and when it gets into every story in every publication throughout the country it has lost all of its impact. That term started with one writer at the newspaper where I worked and within a couple of weeks everyone was using it and only it to express an approximation. Example: "The ship was roughly the length of three football fields." And, answer this, why is "football field" the distance measure most often used for lengths of more than 300 feet? Does the writer think the audience is so stupid 930 feet can't be envisioned? Some writers will go to amazing lengths to use the football field comparison. It's only a matter of time until space is measured in football fields instead of light years.

There are others, among them this list of "enough-already" terms:
The first two relate to each other.

"met up" It seems no one any more can write any form of the verb "to meet" without the "up." Met up meet up, meeting up with. Just "met" is fine.

"Back in …" Every announcer on television news and sports now has to say "back in" and then some date in the past.  Instead of "back in 1978" just say "in 1978."

And here are some terms we have just had enough of (yes I know about prepositions):

Anything 'gate.

Perfect storm – how often is that used to describe a congestion of elements? I remember in the movie when the satellite weather photo of the storm came on the screen saying way too loud "geesus." It was one of those times my daughter dug her elbow into my ribs hard enough to leave a bruise. That was a perfect storm. There are very few others, particularly not when the term is extended to contexts like politics.

Boots on the ground – come on, once was enough, twice was almost too much already, but about a million times later it has lost its punch.

Baby bump – good grief, enough!

Poop – this has become the acceptable word for human excrement even in the most serious of contexts.  Can't writers find anything less cute? There are several options.

Arc – This is a fairly new one that refers to the area influenced by an event. It was used for the Newton school shootings to describe the general area where those victims lived.

Hitler;
Nazi;
dictator; Please, if the president were any of these things, you would:
a) be in prison of dead just for saying any of those;
b) not be able to say them anyway because you would not have free access to this Internet we have come to know and love.

Hero – enough said about that, overused. Heroes are actually rare.

Amongst – this has been showing up more frequently.  It is principally a British usage. "Among" is the way Americans spell it. Like "grey" is British, "gray" is American.

Admittedly this is a personal prejudice, but "bikers" ride motorcycles often in gangs. "Bicyclists" are those daredevils who challenge pickup trucks the size of houses for the right of way on slushy winter streets.

Newspapers have their own usage difficulties. Headline words make up a group of those. Headline words are used when the correct, but longer term won't fit in a headline, for example "heist" instead of "robbery" or "prep" instead of "high school." They are last resorts even in writing headlines, but when they show up in copy where there are fewer space restraints they are just hack words, jargon. Still they appear frequently. The TV show Castle had a great running gag on shortened jargon words. A detective asked the writer, Castle, why writers always called the criminals "perps" from perpetrators.  Then for the rest of the episode every time they met, the detectives tossed out another synonym for the word. It's what all writers should do when they recognize trending words and cliches in their work. Look for another term.

This is a subject that can go on and on to grueling extremes and obviously this post isn't the last word or any sort of list of hard and fast rules, and certainly not worth suffering a heart attack over. More like a blood-letting on my part releasing some irritations that have been building over the years. It will pass or a bigger and better list will show up some day.

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Interesting quotations

"In the final analysis your life is only as good as the background music you dance to." – that was me

"Whether you think that you can or you think you can't, you are right." – Henry Ford

"You want to feel alive until the day you croak" – Frank Gallagher Shameless

"Smooth is good but sailing takes a brisk wind" – me

"I'm a drinker with writing problems." ~ Brendan Behan

"Religious Freedom is not about stopping persecution; it’s about being the one who gets to do it. Glory!" – Mrs. Betty Bowers, America's best Christian

It doesn't matter what you write, it only matters that you write.

"Give someone a book and they'll read all day. Teach someone to write a book and they'll spend a lifetime mired in paralyzing self doubt." – internet meme

"It's been a long time since I heard my backbone crack – Chuck Berry

“Don’t think you’re on the right road just because it’s a well-beaten path.” – JD

"I was the only person up on the hill with both racing numbers and a handicapped placard." – Kitty Delorey Fleischman, a grandmother who occasionally still races her Porsche in hill climbs.

Like most writers, I feel like a reprobate who does not deserve to live on any day that I do not write, but I also feel that four or five hours is enough to earn my stay on the planet for one more day. – anon

"Religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool." – Mark Twain

Shit happens; you just come up with a different plan. – Kitty

Your body is not a temple. It's an amusement park. – Anthony Bourdain

Never too late for a happy childhood – Berkley Breathed

A real writer doesn't just want to write, a real writer has to write. – Internet meme

"It was like the aftermath of an orgasm with the wrong partner" – David Lagercrants, "The Girl in the Spider's Web"

The non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity. – Franz Kafka

If the muse is late, start without her – Peter S. Beagle

We never comprehend how heavy the things are we insist on carrying until we set them down. jd

Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. ~Mark Twain Actually you could do the same thing with the word "really" as in "really cold."

If you are looking for an experience that will temper your vanity, this is it. There's no one to impress when you're alone on the trap line. – Michael Carey quoting his father's journal

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. – Benjamin Franklin

It’s nervous work. The state you need to write in is the state that others are paying large sums of money to get rid of. – Shirley Hazzard

So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence -- Bertrand Russell

You know that I always just wanted to have a small ship to take stuff from a place that had a lot of that stuff to a place that did not have a lot of that stuff and so prosper.—Jackie Faber, “The Wake of the Lorelei Lee”

If you attack the arguer instead of the argument, you lose both

If an insurance company won’t pay for damages caused by an “act of God,” shouldn’t it then have to prove the existence of God? – I said that

I used to think getting old was about vanity—but actually it’s about losing people you love. Getting wrinkles is trivial. – Eugene O’Neill

German General to Swiss General: “You have only 500,000 men in your army; what would you do if I invaded with 1 million men?”

Swiss General: “Well, I suppose every one of my soldiers would need to fire twice.”

Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.—Gloria Steinem

Exceed your bandwidth—sign on the wall of the maintenance shop at the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center

One thing I do know, if you keep at it, you usually wind up getting something done.—Patricia Monaghan

Do you want to know what kind of person makes the best reporter? I’ll tell you. A borderline sociopath. Someone smart, inquisitive, stubborn, disorganized, chaotic, and in a perpetual state of simmering rage at the failings of the world.—Brett Arends

It is a very simple mind that only knows how to spell a word one way.—Andrew Jackson

3:30 is too late or too early to do anything—Rene Descartes

Everything is okay when it’s 50-below as long as everything is okay. – an Alaskan in Tom Walker’s “The Seventymile Kid”

You can have your own opinion but you can’t have your own science.—commenter arguing on a story about polar bears and global warming

He looks at three ex wives as a good start—TV police drama

Talkeetna: A friendly little drinking town with a climbing problem.—a handmade bumper sticker

“You’re either into the wall or into the show”—Marco Andretti on giving it all to qualify last at the 2011 Indy 500

Makeup is not for the faint of heart—the makeup guerrilla

“I’m going to relax in a very adult manner.”—Danica Patrick after sweating it out and qualifying half an hour before Andretti

“Asking Congress to come back is like asking a mugger to come back because he forgot your wallet.”—a roundtable participant on Fox of all places

As Republicans go further back in the conception process to define when life actually begins, I am beginning to think the eventual definition will be life begins in the beer I was drinking when I met her.—me again

Hunting is a “critical element for the long-term conservation of wood bison.”—a state department of Fish and Game official explaining why the state would not go along with a federal plan to reintroduce wood bison in Alaska because the agreement did not specifically allow hunting

Each day do something that won’t compute – anon

I can’t belive I still have to protest this shit – a sign carriend by an elderly woman at an Occupy demonstration

Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stared at walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing. – Meg Chittenden

Life should be a little nuts or else it’s just a bunch of Thursdays strung together—Kevin Costner as Beau Burroughs in “Rumor has it”

You’re just a wanker whipping up fear —Irish President Michael D. Higgins to a tea party radio talk show host

Being president doesn’t change who you are; it reveals who you are—Michelle Obama

Things sports announcers say

"… there's a fearlessment about him …"

"He's got to have the lead if he's going to win this race."

"Kansas has always had the ability to score with the basketball."

"NFL to put computer chips in balls." Oh, that's gotta hurt.

"Now that you're in the finals you have to run the race that's going to get you on the podium."

"It's very important for both sides that they stay on their feet."

This is why you get to hate sportscasters. Kansas beats Texas for the first time since 1938. So the pundits open their segment with the question "let's talk about what went wrong." Wrong? Kansas WON a football game! That's what went RIGHT!

"I brought out the thermostat to show you how cold it is here." Points to a thermometer reading zero in Minneapolis.

"It's tough to win on the road when you turn the ball over." Oh, really? Like you can do all right if you turn the ball over playing at home?

Cliches so imbedded in sportscasters' minds they can't help themselves: "Minnesota fell from the ranks of the undefeated today." What ranks? They were the only undefeated team left.

A good one: A 5'10" player went up and caught a pass off a defensive back over six feet tall. The quote? "He's got some hops."

Best homonym of the day so far: "It's all tied. Alabama 34, Kentucky 3." Oh, Tide.

"Steve Hooker commentates on his Olympic pole vault gold medal." When "comments" just won't do.

"He's certainly capable of the top ten, maybe even higher than that."

"Atlanta is capable of doing what they're doing."

"Biyombo, one of seven kids from the Republic of Congo." In the NBA? In America? In his whole country?

"You can't come out and be aggressive but you can't come out and be unaggressive."

"They're gonna be in every game they play!"

"First you have to get two strikes on the hitter before you get the strikeout."

"The game ended in the final seconds." You have to wonder when the others ended or are they still going on?

How is a team down by one touchdown before the half "totally demoralized?"

"If they score runs they will win."

"I think the matchup is what it is"

After a play a Houston defender was on his knees, his head on the ground and his hand underneath him appeared to clutch a very sensitive part of the male anatomy. He rolled onto his back and quickly removed his hand. (Remember the old Cosby routine "you cannot touch certain parts of your body?") Finally they helped the guy to the sideline and then the replay was shown. In it the guy clearly took a hard knee between his thighs. As this was being shown, one of the announcers says, "It looks like he hurt his shoulder." The other agrees and then they both talk about how serious a shoulder injury can be. Were we watching the same game?

"Somebody is going to be the quarterback or we're going to see a new quarterback."

"If you're gonna play running back in the SEC you're gonna take hits."

"That was a playmaker making a play."

Best headlines ever

Church Mutual Insurance won't cover Church's flood damage because it's 'an act of God'

Homicide victims rarely talk to police

Meerkat Expert Attacked Monkey Handler Over Love Affair With Llama Keeper

GOP congressman opposes gun control because gay marriage leads to bestiality

Owner of killer bear chokes to death on sex toy

Support for legalizing pot hits all-time high

Give me all your money or my penguin will explode

How zombie worms have sex in whale bones

Crocodile steals zoo worker's lawn mower

Woman shot by oven while trying to cook waffles

Nude beach blowjob jet ski fight leads to wife's death

Woman stabs husband with squirrel for not buying beer Christmas Eve