02 July 2014

Use your words! Or don't...

by Robert Lopresti 

"But I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you."  -T.S. Eliot.

I've been jotting down words and phrases in my notebook lately, mostly uses that are new to me.  I asked a few people for language that has been bumping in their ears, and added them to my list.  Tell me what you think.

It's a thing.  One day I asked my wife "When did thing become a thing?"  Oddly enough she knew exactly what I meant.  The phrase comes up most often as "Is that a thing?" And it has two meanings: Does that exist? and Has that become popular/a trend?  Ben Yagoda was able to find it used on TV in 2001 in an episode of That Seventies Show (not meaning that It dates back to the seventies, of course).  And naturally there is a website that allows you to pontificate on whether something is a thing or not.

Because grammar.  I had a hell of a time finding an article about this, largely because I didn't know what to look for.  Or should I say "Because ignorance?"  The proper term is apparently "propositional because," and it means a blog-friendly language abbreviation, the word "because" followed by a word or short phrase.  It happens because Internet.  And because attention span. 

What I couldn't find is a discussion of the way I see the expression used most often, which is as a snarky dismissal of the arguments of someone you disagree with. 

Of course, some people insist that gay marriage must be forbidden, because religion.

Our opponents feel they must violate our constitutional rights to own guns, because Columbine.

I mentioned this to my son-in-law recently and he told me it was an example of a snowclone.  So...

What the hell is a snowclone?  Glad you asked.  It is a neologism created by Glen Whitman when  Geoffrey Pullam  asked for a term for "a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different jokey variants by lazy journalists and writers."

Let me see if I can make that clearer.  You take a phrase in common usage (especially one that has some pop culture cachet to it) and you substitute a word or two to create a new phrase.  I actually wrote about one here.   Remember Gil Scott-Heron's great song "The Revolution WIll Not Be Televised?"  Well, a quick look at the Internet informed me that:
The revolution will not be blogged
The revolution will not be webcast
The revolution will not be digitized
The revolution will not be effectively distributed
The revolution will not be sexualized
The revolution will not be plagiarized
The revolution will not be satirized
The revolution will not be copyrighted

Many more but you get the idea. 

Curated.  I'm pretty neutral on the ones above, but this one bugs me.  I keep running into stores whose merchandise is "curated."  It has become to furnishings what "artisanal" is to bread.

Whataboutery.  This one, on the other hand, I love.  I saw it once and immediately looked it up on the web.  Apparently it comes from Britain.  The Wiktionary gives it two related  meanings:

  1. Protesting at hypocrisy; responding to criticism by accusing one's opponent of similar or worse faults.
  2. Protesting at inconsistency; refusing to act in one instance unless similar action is taken in other similar instances.
I'll offer a third slight variation:
      3. Protesting self-centeredness; refusing to take a complaint seriously because someone somewhere has it worse.  ("There are children starving in China...")

What follows are a list of things people have been doing to ideas lately. Most of them were reported by my friend and fellow librarian, Marian Alexander.

  • Interrogating
  • Privileging 
  • Unpicking
  • Parsing
  • Honoring

Please tell me what you think of these terms, and the other ones that bug or amuse you.  As for me, I'm done.  Because bed.


  1. Verrrrry interesting, Rob. I enjoyed the links as well. I misread snowclone the first time through and thought it was snowcone, which even at my age, I love. My favorite is "whataboutery," probably because I heard "what about it?" so often between arguing kids when I taught. I can't think of any additions for you but I'll be on the look-out (or should that be listen-out?)

  2. Curated is one of my pet peeves- one of those fancy dan phrases that sits between pretension and nonsense.
    Maybe I'm just cranky having been curating my garden!

  3. Catch-phrases and short-cutlery tend to wear verrrry thin with me.

    In times past when literary effort was involved, I could imagine 'because of' evolving to simply 'because' much like some uses of 'that' have been seen as redundant.

    While not in the same category as your article, the internet has brought misuse of words to an entirely new and rapid-paced level. For example, "I was trolling some sites…" when they probably meant 'trawling' or (in the Wikipedia sense) possibly 'patrolling'.

  4. I love observations like these, Rob. Great post.

    Leigh, I imagine the phrase "trolling some sites" came from what we rednecks in the South do a lot: trolling for bass, catfish, etc., by dragging bait/lures slowly through the water behind a fishing boat. (Actually, I've heard some folks say Internet "trolls" are those who post inflammatory or controversial comments.)

    And I agree with your mention of the growing misuse of words, Leigh. I think our language is probably DEvolving--or whatever the term is, for evolving in the wrong direction.

  5. In my experience with bread, artisanal = lumpy and often the color of cheesy flour.
    I still hate "back in the day", because any more people use it about yesterday.
    I think John has the provenance of "trolling" correct, and speaking of which, I find "provenance" a very pretentious way of saying what something's history is.
    My current favorite is on a site I love - Slacktivist - which discusses religious stuff (often with rich sarcasm and dissent) "Thus, Calvinism".
    Love it, Rob!

  6. Just have to add another southern use for "trolling" in the South to John's explanation. Back when Singles Bars (or Meat Markets) were popular, singles who went out looking to meet someone new were "trolling." I don't know if they still use that term or even do that with all the Internet dating sites.

  7. Deprepositionization is always a little unsettling until you get used to it. "Passengers must all disembark the vessel". The linguistic drift that I find most striking is that no generation may use a word for "good" that the previous would understand, which is cool, harsh, and sick, depending.

  8. A Broad Abroad06 July, 2014 05:50

    Many of these have not yet reached South African shores, but we are sure to catch up soon - the good, the bad and the ugly.


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