The idea that words have some sort of tangible value appeals to me. I am not talking about their role in brands or Internet domain names but simply the written or spoken words that we use to communicate. For me, some words have a high value while others are not worth much at all. Other words have considerable value in one form of usage but not others. And then there are perfectly good words that, like currencies, have become devalued through proliferation.
A good example of a word worn out by overuse is “extraordinary”. It is hard to find a documentary that is not peppered with this adjective from start to end. Even the admirable David Attenborough utters it so frequently that it has lost its impact. After all, if so many things are extraordinary, does that not just make them plain old ordinary?
The word “leverage” has a high value for me when it is used as a noun, whether in a mechanical sense or in the context of financial markets or other areas of human interaction. But it seems awkward and inappropriate when used as a verb – typically in the annoying world of business jargon. Archimedes would turn in his grave, screw-like, if he could hear this buzzword being used in corporate conversations and presentations, typically as a simple substitute for the verb “to use”. There is an irony here as the same outcome is achieved using eight letters instead of three. Is that not the precise opposite of leverage? In any case, I had always understood the verb form of leverage to be “lever”. The extra three letters add nothing but a sense of bombast.
Continuing the theme of nouns inappropriately converted to verbs, we have the entertaining case of “podium”. I am truly a fan of athletics but sometimes our language takes a hit in a worthy cause. The idea (now reinforced by several dictionaries) that podium is a verb seems ludicrous to me. How are we meant to construct the various tenses? For the past, we apparently have the outstandingly awkward “podiumed”. Perhaps “podiated” would be better? And how about “repodiated” for someone who wins another medal?
Some words, for me at least, have negative value and contribute to a sort of “language debt”. We would be better off without them. For some reason that I cannot quite put my finger on, I feel uncomfortable with the word “selfie”, which was awarded “Word of the Year” by Oxford Dictionaries in 2013. It smacks of narcissism and instant gratification. The original “self-portrait” has more dignity. Slang has an important place in languages but there is something about this particular word that grates.
One of the worst of all modern words, bodged together in the form of a crude portmanteau, is so distasteful to me that I find it painful just to write it down or type it on the keyboard. I don’t know where “chillax” came from, but I wish it would disappear forever. It is not a word – it is an abomination. If it entered a competition for the world’s worst word, I have no doubt that it would podium.
The Knot Garden, a supporter of Plain English, approves of the invention of new words where they contribute to the richness of the language. But such a craft should not be taken lightly. Not all words are equal.