Last winter while listening to a baseball hot-stove report on MLB Radio, I heard one of the Cincinnati Reds’ high draft picks tell his interviewer that the first time he stepped into the batter’s box in his first minor league game as a Rookie League Greenville Red it was “surreal,” which, I’m guessing, may just be the five hundredth or so time an athlete in the past year has described a special moment by employing that word.
Consider this adjective, one defined by Merriam-Webster as “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream,” as the latest hackneyed diction choice in our ever-changing and, sometimes not-for-the-better, language.
The word traces back to the 1920s when a group of painters, poets and early filmmakers began a movement called Surrealism, which revolved around the idea that the source of all imagination was the unconscious mind, a concept made famous by Freud, especially when it reveals itself in most lucid fashion in dreams. It is from here the word surreal originates, and it has been used, both in sports and beyond sports’ paremeters, countless times to describe experiences that are hard to fathom.
As I used to tell my troops of young writers who once upon a time filed into Room 16 at St. Marys Memorial High School for 180 days’ worth of instruction on the nuances of our beautiful language and the means by which they could understand and use it more efficiently, words that have become trite over time should be avoided. I’d stress that was especially true in something as permanent as their writings. While verbal trite expressions often are used as conversation starters — as in “hot enough for you?” — they vanish once they pass the lips, unlike writing, which endures until the paper upon which they are written turns to dust.
As for the expressions that have become so overused that they have become almost meaningless, in other words the current crop of kissin’ cousins of surreal, they would be words like awesome, the hyperbolic use of love and hate, literally and hashtag. And, of course, when it comes to awesome, that would include the uber-annoying “awesome sauce.”
If you’re wondering about love and hate, the words denote the strongest of passionate emotions, so to use the words cavalierly to describe one’s feelings about pizza or broccoli is to cheapen them and render them useless.
And, of course, no need to elaborate on hashtag, the social media darling of most overused words. No, young people, don’t use the word in front of every topic when speaking, that is, unless you want to double down on annoyance and pretentiousness.
Even the great Mark Twain recognized the dangers of overused diction and said, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it, and the writing will be just as it should be.”
As for me, the most aggravatingly overused words in the language are those phrases that simply have lost their zest. Some, thankfully, will eventually die when older folks do. Don’t believe me? Try asking a teen these days about that bird in the hand being so superior than the two in the bush, and see what kind of reaction you get.
Surely, if you’re looking for hackneyed expressions, you might want to listen to a few post-game pressers from the world of sports. Heading the list of those sports-related linguistic banalities for me would be the next coach’s or player’s utterance after a lopsided loss of “it is what it is.” A close second would be the next player after a championship win who says, “This is something they can never take away from me.” The question I always ask my TV screen is just who are “they,” and why would they even think about taking this away from you?
Look, we’re all guilty of overusing expressions, especially when speaking and searching for our ice breakers, but I would encourage all of us to take a deeper dive into our own methods of expressing ourselves, especially when we write to avoid what has been used to the point of extinction, in other words, to stop beating all our dead horses.
While it’s difficult to say with certainty how many actual words there are in the English language because of the language’s constant flux, in 2010, researchers from Google and Howard estimated that total to be more than a million. And, that’s certainly enough from which to choose to avoid those that have long lost their spontaneity.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.