Sunday, August 22, 2010

You Can't Say That!

All words are not created equal.

There are words which, through no fault of their own, are basically unusable without distracting from the overall meaning of any communication to which they are a part.

I'm not talking about George Carlin's “seven words you can't say on television” (which has evolved into “seven words you can't help but hear on cable television.”) Those are for a more avant-garde, if you'll pardon my French, publication than this one.

The poor, unfortunate words here got obsoleted (that's actually a word … I looked it up) because they sound funny, or a famous joke was made about them, or new words took their place or for any number of reasons.

So what the heck am I talking about?

I'll start with an easy one: Assume. For centuries we had a perfectly good word that served us all very well. We could assume the worst. We could assume we knew best. We could assume the position. We could assume and assume to our heart's content, until …

Some wise guy came up with that fatal joke. You know it. Say it along with me if you like: “You know, when you assume ... you make an ass out of 'u' and me.”

And that was the end for that word. If you don't believe me, just try using it in a conversation. Worse yet, try using it in an important report for your school or business. See? So get out your thesaurus and look for words that aren't exactly right, but are less distracting. (I wouldn't recommend one of the even more distracting alternative suggestions: “presuppose.”)

Next, unless you're talking about a rug, it's a good idea to avoid the word Oriental. Unlike most ethnic words that we very obviously should no longer use, I'm really not exactly clear on why this one would be offensive. However, I take the same approach I do when it comes to offending women: Since I'm not one I'll take their word that I shouldn't say that any more. And “Asian” does seem like a perfectly good substitute.

One of the original word switcheroos, of course, is Gay. Almost unbelievably, still lists “homosexual” as the fifth definition for gay, behind “having or showing a merry, lively mood” and “bright or showy.” You have to wonder about a dictionary that makes you feel smarter than it is.

Many, many words are the innocent victims of their own sound. Use these at your own peril since giggles and muffled, simulated coughing are bound to break out. To point out that Dolly Parton is the titular head of Dollywood is not at all to comment on the attributes that I have no doubt just crossed your mind.

A word can't help it if it sounds like something more inappropriate than it is. For similar reasons that I won't point out specifically, this category also includes Uranus, Masticate, Coccyx, Drizzle, Shih Tzu and Bangkok among hundreds of others

Some words just get beaten out or naturally outdated. There was a time when aeroplane almost made it into everyday English, but the simpler “airplane” won out in the end. Your car's accelerator was almost called a velocitator and your helicopter started out as an auto gyro. In fact, here's a good criterion to use: You can count on almost anything that comes out of the mouth of Mr. Burns, the ancient miser on The Simpsons as words that didn't quite make the mainstream.

In the 1920s, a Bimbo was a tough guy and what we would call a bimbo today was a Dumb Dora. This is just one more reason that time travel would be a very dangerous proposition.

Even something as new as the Internet has outdated words. Today we “Google it” to find what we want on the Net, but 15 years ago we would “go to the Gopher,” using the University of Minnesota's top-flight search engine. Unfortunately, even a cute mascot like Goldie the Gopher was no match for the approaching tsunami that was Google, and the poor critter was run to ground.

And while we're on the subject, whatever happened to the cities of Bombay and Peking, anyway?

I suppose we can take comfort in the fact that this is an ongoing process. Like the circle of life, words and names seem to have their day in the sun and then slowly fade into oblivion.

If you don't believe me, the next time you go into a men's clothing store, ask if that sport coat comes with two pairs of pantaloons.

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