WORD UP

Inefficient words are ruining the English language

We all use inefficient words. I call them inefficient because they create more problems than they solve. One of the worst is “robust.” For years “robust” referred to someone’s health or a food’s rich flavor or smell. This morning on the news I heard a member of the local zoo say, “We have a very robust program for our animals,” meaning it’s healthy or it smells (since it’s a zoo, it probably smells but it’s a healthy smell).

During my time working in the pharmaceutical industry, you couldn’t get away from “robust.” Every antibiotic or antifungal had a “robust” mode of action, suggesting the microorganisms hopped around like Mexican jumping beans.

Earlier this month, three Republican House Representatives used “robust” to describe new legislation. If the latest healthcare bill is any indication, “robust” seems to imply you don’t have to read the whole thing.

There’s a laziness to inefficient words. We use them because they’re handy. It’s probably why we joined “nevertheless” together. What’s the point of having a handy word if it’s so hard to say? The same could be said of “Wassup?” Why have a singular noun when you can make it a full sentence?

Humans tend to use terms liberally to get out of explaining things. The other week, President Trump tried to describe Andrew Jackson’s ideas for ending the Civil War. Jackson died sixteen years before the war started. Trump got around that by saying “Andrew Jackson had some great ideas. Really great ideas. He was a very intelligent man.”

Well, you can’t be that intelligent if you’re dead, can you? Trump figured he had enough adjectives to hold off any historical scrutiny. It must have seemed efficient at the time, but it came back to haunt him. Within hours, he was quoted on every newscast and, like all inefficient words, his statements had the hollow charm of an empty beehive. Each “great” and “very” drew more naysayers as they checked to see if Andrew Jackson came back from the dead or Trump meant Samuel L. Jackson, referring to a movie.

Then there’s “full” as in “We’re giving it our full support.” This saves the speaker from giving exact details. If you’re “fully committed,” you can’t very well give any more, so reporters should shut their pie holes. Since reporters aren’t paid to shut their pie holes, all Trump could do was call them “petty” which opened their pie holes even further.

When they’re not opening their pie holes, newscasters like Wolf Blitzer have their own assortment of inefficient words like “startling” and “breaking.” News by its definition is always “breaking,” and who’s “startled” anymore when 289 people are shot in the US each day?

Still, we can’t get away from inefficient words. They’re too easy to use. In one episode of Survivor, contestants used “awesome” twelve times. Either they’re chosen for their wide-eyed optimism or too starved to think of another word.

We’ve also thrown around “good” and “bad” like it defines someone or something. During the 2016 presidential elections, voters supported Trump because he was a “good negotiator.” Once he was elected, he referred to all his appointments as “good people” until he fired officials like FBI director James Comey and Sally Yates, calling them “bad at their jobs.”

Inefficient words make it too easy. They fit into texts and short Twitter copy (which works for Trump). They keep us from rambling (even better for Trump). They confine us to mundane truths. Trump has also given us new terms like “fake news.” He’ll contend these are words voters understand, which may well be true.

We do understand inefficient words. However, through Trump’s administration, and what he calls “fake news,” we’re also understanding how empty and unreliable inefficient words can be. Maybe that will be Trump’s legacy: we’ll improve our English.

This post originally appeared at Medium.

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