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Words like lumps of coal

It’s the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring, except the writer throwing her manuscript across the room. What words will Santa give her? Gifts of ‘stillicide’ or ‘ectoplasm’ for her National Book Award — or lumps of coal for failing NaNoWriMo. We’d like to share a few reflections on terrible words from writers such as David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, and Michael Dirda in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus below.

Joshua Ferris says “Bah, humbug” to… ACTUALLY

Actually is a fashionable word circa 2011, especially in colloquial, voice-driven contemporary writing, and it’s all over the place in everyday speech. It’s used wrongly and excessively, even speciously, and is one of the worst tics of tendentious writing. As a qualifier, it’s fine (Jack is actually eleven, not twelve). As an intensifier (like its brothers literally, really, utterly, and totally), it attempts to replace subjective opinion for objective fact (the play was actually a lot better than Jack thought it was). One can’t use a word that means ‘existing in fact, real’ in the context of something debatable or contentious. I’d suggest a basic usage rule that says whenever you can replace actually with in my opinion, the actually should be avoided.

Zadie Smith says “Bah, humbug” to… BARREN

Nullipara. A woman who has never given birth to a child. One of the few nouns referring to the sexual/reproductive/aging status of a woman that is not in any way pejorative, simply because it is almost never used. Should be printed on T-shirts.

Michael Dirda says “Bah, humbug” to… BRAVE

Excepting the few who boldly confront oppressive laws or governments (Émile Zola, Anna Akhmatova), or those who join fighting brigades where they risk being killed in battle (Ernst Junger, Andre Malraux), no writer should be referred to as brave. Too often modern poets are called brave—or daring or fearless—simply because they write openly about being lonely, sexually frustrated, or drug-dependent. Worse yet, critics sometime present the verbal equivalent of the Silver Star to some assistant professor attempting an unfashionable verse form in his latest contribution to the Powhatan Review. That’s not quite what placing your life on the line means. Save all those courageous adjectives for coal miners, firefighters, and the truly heroic.

David Foster Wallace says “Bah, humbug” to… INDIVIDUAL

As a noun, this word has one legitimate use, which is to distinguish a single person from some larger group: one of the enduring oppositions of British literature is that between the individual and society; or boy, she’s a real individual. I don’t like it as a synonym for person despite the fact that much legal, bureaucratic, and public-statement prose uses it that way—it looms large in turgid writing like law-enforcement personnel apprehended the individual as he was attempting to exit the premises. Individual for person and an individual for someone are pretentious, deadening puff-words; eschew them.

David Auburn says “Bah, humbug” to… QUIRKY

Just as the British use clever as a backhanded insult, meaning ‘merely clever, not actually intelligent or thoughtful,’ quirky is often used to mean ‘mildly and harmlessly peculiar’ with ‘and totally uninteresting’ implied. I hate quirky and hate having it applied to my own writing. I would rather receive a negative review that didn’t use this word than a rave that did.

Francine Prose says “Bah, humbug” to… SCUD

Once I heard a teacher tell a seventh-grade class that this was precisely the sort of verb they should use to make their writing livelier and more interesting. The example she gave was: The storm clouds scudded over the horizon. In fact, this is precisely the sort of word—words that call unnecessary attention to themselves, that sound artificial and stop the reader in mid-sentence—that should not be used for that reason. Or for any reason. When in doubt, use a simpler and more everyday word, and try to make the content of the sentence livelier and more interesting, which is always a better idea. If you don’t have anything fresh to report about the rapidly moving clouds, writing that they scudded won’t help.

David Lehman says “Bah, humbug” to… SYNERGY

Some words don’t work. Synergy is one of them. Theoretically it makes sense. Synergy is a business term, corporate-speak for the advantages of amalgamating the operations of several different but related companies. When, for example, a book publisher merges with a movie studio, one reason given is that there are bound to be significant synergies: ways one branch of the new structure can feed the other. It turns out, however, that the concept is flawed; these mergers seldom go according to plan. And that is surely why you hear the word only in the business news, among executives and mouthpieces for whom hope springs eternal.

Suleiman Osman says “Bah, humbug” to… TECHNICALLY

When someone starts a phrase with the word technically, he or she almost always follows with a statement that is useless or wrong. This is particularly true when a person is using the term as a way to correct someone gently. “Technically, the city is called Par-ee.” Who has not been enjoying a view of a lovely body of water and muttered to oneself “what a beautiful bay,” only to be interrupted by someone who points out that “technically it’s a sound.” Feel free to tell him or her that “technically” there is no difference between a sound, bay, firth, gulf, cove, bight, or fjord. There are only different local conventions. Or if you aren’t sure, you can always ask “technically, according to whom?”

Tell us the words you say “Bah, humbug” to in the comments below.

Much more than a word list, the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus is a browsable source of inspiration as well as an authoritative guide to selecting and using vocabulary. This essential guide for writers provides real-life example sentences and a careful selection of the most relevant synonyms, as well as new usage notes, hints for choosing between similar words, a Word Finder section organized by subject, and a comprehensive language guide. The text is also peppered with thought-provoking reflections on favorite (and not-so-favorite) words by noted contemporary writers, including Joshua Ferris, Francine Prose, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, and Simon Winchester, many newly commissioned for this edition.

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Recent Comments

  1. Marilyn Jess

    “Anyways” NOT a word. “Loose weight” NOT the correct way to say this.

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