I wanna start with a line from Wittgenstein, that ol' Austrian philosopher of language who seriously embraced silliness and who wrote two of the best books ever. In Tractatus he wrote: "The limits of my language means the limits of my world."
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson do a good job of illustrating this point. In Metaphors We Live By, the two scholars note that the language we use when we talk about "argument," for example, is all about war. You "attack" someone's argument; you "defend" your own. You "shoot down" someone's point. If your friend trusts you to edit something, they might ask you to read their essay and "rip it to shreds." No wonder students are so sheepish about writing, then, and no wonder the dial of American discourse seems permanently set at BLIND BOMB TOSS.
In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein writes: "Like everything metaphysical the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language." Here, I think he's suggesting that language is the only way out of this particular language-based problem. Would our conversations be more "constructive" if we described arguments using architectural metaphors? Maybe. You can bust up the framework of someone's argument, or destroy its foundation. All of that sounds pretty frightening, but at least the writer's life isn't under threat!
In any case, all of these philosophers are getting at a pretty interesting question: What if we made a conscious effort to change the way we talk about stuff in a way that doesn't work against the very thing we're trying to say?
To that end, I think we must kill off *ahem* find better purposes for words that contain unhelpful ideas, and offer up new ones that might work out better. Here's my list for the year:
• Privilege — The word's connotation of "fanciness" works against its purpose by giving lower-middle class and poor whites an early out in the argument. I ran into this issue a lot when I lived and taught in rural Missouri last year. After being asked to “check their privilege,” a poor white person who hasn’t had much education and who doesn’t swim in the sea of articles on the subject might say: “I was raised in a trailer with no daddy—what the fuck do you mean I need to 'check my privilege?'” Then you end up getting into a long and tedious conversation about what you mean by “privilege,” a conversation that's nearly impossible to have without sounding condescending, even if you were also raised in a trailer with no daddy.
In lieu of "privilege," I suggest "advantages." I think often we're talking about advantages that a white supremacist culture affords to white people, or to "people who think they are white," to quote Baldwin via Coates. Speaking of Coates, for the realists who give no shits about ticking off poor and uneducated white people, I like the idea of replacing "privilege" with "plunder," which is the word he uses in his great book Between the World and Me, to highlight the physical and legal realities of white supremacy.
• Present — As in, "I'm just really focusing on being 'present' right now." I don't know when people started saying this, but I started hearing a lot of it after Marina Abramović's performance of "The Artist is Present" back in 2010. My issue with "present" is that it's too passive. People say it with a kind of wide-eyed calmness suggestive of some dark and mysterious past from which they've only recently emerged using only the powers of their presence.
When I'm "present," meaning, "really listening and responding to my surroundings without filtering it through my own bullshit," what I really mean is that I am alert, aware, engaged, active. Why not say "all up in it," instead?
• Problematic — Why is this non-specific placeholder still being used as a catch-all euphemism? It weakens the argument against the thing it's trying to call out.
• Reach out — Another corporate culture euphemism that has invaded the world of human interaction. You're not "reaching out." You are all up in my inbox asking me for something. OWN IT. The fix: Say "write" or "contact." It makes more sense to me to say "I'm writing to..." or "I'm contacting you because..." because that's actually what's going on. (I guess people aren't physically contacting you in these instances, but they are MENTALLY contacting you.)
• Seminal — Sexist on its face (as it were), as if works can only be "fathered" from a dick chute. Would we say "uterine" to describe something a woman made? No. No uterine, no seminal. Full kill, no suggested replacement.
And Now Here Is A List of Words and Phrases that Should Die Due to Overuse or Egregious Misuse, Posted Without Comment
• centered around
• creative (noun)
• by turns
• pen (verb)
• around (as preposition to replace about)
• appropriate/inappropriate (as criticism)
• offensive (as criticism)
• pen (verb)
• circle back
• "-hack" (as in "life-," "mind-")
Of course, these are all my personal peeves. (Others may object to my objections, or indeed to the term "peeves.") People will use them no matter what I or anyone says. Wittgenstein again:
"Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it."