Terms that make us cringe: the sequel

Readers chime in with their pet peeves. And the beat goes on …

Last week, we wrote an article identifying words that make linguists cringe.

As professional speechwriters, we had no shortage of options. The hardest part was winnowing them to our favorite options. In the days since, it’s become clear that many of our fellow writers, bloggers and readers share a pent-up annoyance at words and phrases that are overused or lazy or say nothing at all.

When other sites, including Mediabistro, asked readers to submit their own cringe-worthy words, the nominations rolled in. Narrowing down the great options wasn’t easy, but we were up to the challenge. For your reading pleasure, here are five more words, phrases and pseudo-suffixes that make us cringe—the user-submitted edition:

1. “-Mageddon” and “-Gate”

Snowmageddon, Carmageddon. Twittergate. Nipplegate.

It has become established practice among our journalist friends that any minor inconvenience is conflated with the end of the world; even the slightest whiff of scandal is equated with the worst political crime in American history. We get it: Television news graphics divisions need material to work with. But have we really reached a point in consumerism where even news stories need to have a brand?

2. “Outside the box”

The fastest way to earn a place in the cringe-worthy hall of shame is with corporate catch phrases. Last week, we singled out “paradigm”; this week “outside the box” earns our jeers. Where is this box? Why is it so difficult and noteworthy to emerge from it? As we all know, the term refers to clever thinking and new ideas. Wouldn’t it be nice if the words used to describe creativity weren’t so appallingly uncreative?

3. Irregardless

The problem with this word is that, well, it’s not a real word. The prefix “ir” and the suffix “less” both mean “without,” so those who substitute this colloquialism for “regardless” are technically saying “without regard without.” One add-on is all you need to negate the word “regard,” and the English language has designated “less” as that add-on. “Irregardless,” please disappear forever.

4. “Game-changer”

This is a popular buzzword for a speech, event or idea that will radically change the political landscape. This term has grown so popular, it was the inspiration for the title of the most-talked-about book about the 2008 presidential election, Game Change” Much like the “-Gate” and “-Maggedon” suffixes we discussed above, the sin here is overuse. For all the times something is described as a game-changer, we’d expect the “game” to be changing a whole lot more than it is.

5. Basically

The sibling of last week’s nominee “literally,” this overused adverb is mostly abused by the 30-and-under, social-media-using demographic. Already a common tool used to preface simple explanations of more complicated concepts, in recent years “basically” has become an interchangeable modifier used regardless of context. If someone begins a sentence with the word “basically,” the subsequent concept should take them no longer than 10 seconds to explain. Anything longer than that is not basic.

The Internet is filled with sites devoted to identifying misuse of quotation marks and apostrophes. A pair of self-styled grammar vigilantes has even been traversing the country in pursuit of grammatical mistakes on signs. Identifying inappropriate, overused words and phrases is admittedly tougher, because they don’t violate any specific grammar rules. They do, however, violate our sensibilities. We’ll continue working to root them out.

David Meadvin is president of Inkwell Strategies, a professional speechwriting and strategic communications firm located in Washington, D.C. He was chief speechwriter to the U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Senate Majority Leader.


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