Amazingly Unamazing

Overuse of words is both about cliché and cultural use (as in misuse) that is popular

As an editor/writer, working with words is a privilege and responsibility. The correct words placed in an appropriate order — thus conveying meaning while enhancing readability — are fundamental goals. Whether editing the work of others or writing for myself, there’s an inherent awareness of the process, choices and results. For many outside the profession, however, excellence in communication doesn’t hold the same meaning. Sometimes this includes one’s significant other, whose choices of words brings out the worst in an editor — correcting someone else, an almost autonomous reaction that isn’t often appreciated. Her usual response is, you know what I meant.

Unfortunately, knowing what someone means, or thinks they mean, doesn’t alter an editor’s deep sense of “right” and “wrong” (or less right) when it comes to vocabulary. Mind you, editorial style is often as flexible as it is rigid — but consistency is an important goal. Many editorial staff meetings include style issues, and many publications or publishing organizations have in-house style manuals. Given the levels of disagreement that creating these can represent, consensus becomes an important aspect of actually ending up with a completed style guide that is used. There’s a balance of consistency where essential with pliability for creativity.

When there are choices of words to convey meaning, some are simply better, usually for clarity that avoids confusion, but also to avoid overuse. Overuse is both about cliché (note the acute over the e) and cultural use (as in misuse) that is popular. The list of these words is long, with entries ranging from inaccurate to utterly banal. I’ve got some that I’m going to share with you. Know that while editors want and try to be pragmatic about their craft, there are times when unequivocal misuse is simply nonnegotiable.

Amazing. By definition, anything (person, experience) that is described with this term had better really be close to ten on a scale that starts at one. For well-balanced adults who on average could be considered reasonably worldly, the term amazing is rarely used. For the seemingly naive or vocabularily challenged, amazing is used to describe (rate) far too much as being superlative to unbelievable. I’m not a mean girl (or even female), but my opinion of anyone’s vocabulary becomes tenuous with anything approaching overuse of this word.

Awesome. Something, anything should be neighbor to amazing before this term is even a possibility. Gazing out over L.A. on a clear night or enjoying exquisitely prepared artisanal foods might qualify, but a cheeseburger in an L.A. diner, no matter how nicely done, would not. It might be good or even delicious, but it can’t be awesome. What is missing when this word is overused are all the other levels — offering subtlety and nuance — of describing food, sex, entertainment and so on. The actual meaning of a word become diluted into irrelevance with careless usage.

Hero. Not just overused but also in a manipulative way. Hero means extraordinary behavior relative to just doing one’s job or simply being where one is. So, military and police are paid to be where they are doing what they are. Not heroic by any meaningful measure of the term. That’s what medals and recognition of honor are for — beyond the call of duty and service. Single mothers, nurses, lifeguards and so on are doing important work, but are not heroes simply for doing so. As always, when so many are heroes, the real heroes get lost in the crowd.

Self-esteem. That everyone should have a healthy (normal) self-esteem is a worthy goal, but the efforts to ensure that all children grow up to be adults with self-confidence has created unintended consequences. Now everyone is equal and all are winners, which is not what self-esteem is actually about. Too many of these children arrive in higher education or their first real job expecting to be given good grades, promoted and offered raises just for showing up. Self-esteem is about feeling good about one’s self but working hard to achieve goals (academic, career, personal). Self-esteem is not about being egocentric or self-absorbed.

Editors and writers know that misunderstanding, dilution of meaning, confusion and other issues all result from poor choices of words. I realize it doesn’t bother some, but for the rest of us, we really value broad vocabulary and articulation of meaning. I’d rather deal with euphemisms (such as banks referring to unpaid loans as non-performing debt) than exaggeration and misuse. The precision of language is the pragmatic result of needing to communicate effectively and efficiently. Professional jargon aside, this is how we coexist best.

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