Nobody Asked Me But: Buzzwords unpack a lack of linguistic imagination

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Here are the first couple of lines of a song written approximately a century ago: “Pack up all my cares and woes, here I go, singing low, bye bye blackbird.” 

Compare these lyrics to those of another song that has about the same vintage: “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile.”

What do both these songs have in common? Obviously, they both refer to the act of packing away negative feelings and concerns in order to allow a more hopeful and optimistic state of mind to appear.

So much for the act of packing. After the hundred years or so since these tunes were popular, we find that nobody packs anymore. The buzzword making the rounds today is “unpack.” I guess you can still unpack your suitcase or groceries, but the word is used mainly to describe what you do with thoughts, fears, feelings, emotions, frustrations and grief.

“Unpack” has replaced words we once used, such as analyze or examine, to describe the process of breaking down concepts into their component parts in order to better understand them. In fact, it’s a rarity today to hear an interview with any kind of authority on anything without having the word “unpack” pop up.

That’s not to say that unpacking is a spanking new digital creation. No, even William Shakespeare, back in the 16th century, had his protagonist, Hamlet, proclaim “unpack my heart with words” as he attempted to deal with his malaise of inaction. So even though the word has been around for a long time, it’s the overuse of the word and its “buzzwordiness” that irks this listener.

Another buzzword making the rounds recently is “journey.” Nobody ever takes a trip anymore. No, a simple walk down to the corner 7-Eleven for a litre of milk is now described as a mystical, life-altering journey of self-discovery. Coffee and a donut at Tim Hortons is a mind-expanding journey towards actualization of your identity. Even your morning stumble through the kitchen to check for leftovers in the refrigerator is now a door-opening journey to reconcile past experiences.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that new words and expressions come into use while others become archaic and fall into the language waste basket. Currently, there are approximately half a million words in the English language, although I remember when I was a teen that I could get by on a couple of dozen monosyllabic words and a few grunts.

Some words explode on the scene, splash themselves into every conversation, and then exit stage left almost as quickly. When was the last time you heard “groovy?” Or “grok?” Have you recently had the occasion to feel “uptight?” How good does something have to be before you describe it as “outasight?” While once pervading every other nook and cranny of our language, expressions such as “I can dig it” and “weapons of mass destruction” are now only heard as the butts of jokes.

Other overworked expressions seem to find a way of sticking around no matter how tired and hackneyed they get. At the end of the day, when will people stop using “at the end of the day” instead of simply saying “finally?” What’s wrong with saying “now” instead of “at this point in time?” Can we please stop saying “moving forward” and acknowledge the fact that forward is the only direction that time knows how to move?

When it comes to overworked clichés, especially here on Salt Spring, “wellness” takes the proverbial cake. If I hear that term used instead of health one more time, I’m going to have to realign somebody’s chakras. Another buzz-phrase that gets my goat is “think outside the box.” Hey, if you so appreciate the art of originality, how come you can’t come up with another expression that means to think unconventionally?

Let’s look at the word “grow.” I like to garden. I spend much of my time growing carrots and beans. It takes sunshine, water and good soil nutrients to get an excellent harvest. I have no idea what it takes to grow the economy, grow your business, or grow the community. Yet, politicians spend half their campaign speeches extolling the virtues of all these abstract nebulae they promise to grow.

Lately, an expression that has elbowed its way to the front of the buzzword line is “the new normal.” Ostensibly, this expression implies that some novel behaviour or phenomenon has replaced another previously accepted one and is now looked upon as normal. For instance, wearing a mask when entering a bank may be considered the new normal, whereas a decade ago it would have got you a sentence of 10 to 15 years with time off for good behaviour.

Some words make it into the English language by piggybacking on words that are already accepted. For instance, “indigenous” is a term used to describe something or someone native to or belonging naturally to a specific place or locale. Because some people tend to think they will appear more intelligent if they use words containing more syllables, words as “indigenousness” and “indigenousity” have wormed their way into our lexicon. It’s only a matter of time before we start hearing “indigenousityness” bandied about.

I can only guess at the meanings of some other recent terms that are banging at the door to get into the English language. “Bouncebackability” could be a measure of the quality of a basketball or possibly the resilience of someone who has received a hundred consecutive job application rejections. 

When it comes to “eco-bling,” your guess is as good as mine. 

Nobody asked me, but my most recently hated buzzword expression is “good question” or “that’s a great question.” It is usually used by people who have been asked a question for which they have no answer. It is employed as a stalling tactic in the hope that in the second or two it takes to utter this phrase, something will come along to save them from the inevitable embarrassment that is about to become evident. Something like a gigantic asteroid unpacking itself into planet Earth. At which point, all of these irritations of mine become absolutely moot. Unpack that thought into your eco-bling.

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