Saturday, August 20, 2005

Empty Words

We could understand "empty words" to be those which have been brutally stripped of meaning by cultural over-use or misuse. As established earlier this week, "interesting" is one. I can think of others offhand: "awesome," "basically," "nice"...

No doubt we each have our anti-favorites. Or, more essentially, words we would like to use but can’t—because whatever we say will be assessed in a clichéd context.

The challenge, as I see it, is two-fold.

  1. Identity the empty words that litter our conversations.

  2. Move actively to “reinvent” and reincorporate them in conversation.
As martin suggested earlier, restoring meaning to a denatured word is a worthwhile act (i.e., "You interest me strangely") and, I must add, a very revolutionary one. Not to mention a goal that requires considerable ingenuity and tact. In short, a goal worthy of the VRP.

Any thoughts on how to go about it?


Blogger Andrew Simone said...

I would argue to use words properly one must be primarily concerned with etymology; this, generally speaking, points us towards right usage. However, we must concede that langauge changes and that archaic forms must be laid to rest, lest we should put on affectations. So, in short, to use English well we must, at least, learn Latin, Greek, French and German.

Or we can cheat,

3:15 PM  
Blogger Erin said...

As a writer of poetry, avoiding the use of cliches and empty language is a struggle I face on a daily basis. Typically, I try to avoid the usage at all, but have on ocassion attempted to 'reinvent' a word or phrase. Unfortunately I find that the banality overwhelmes the attempt.

So in my opinion our only choice is to avoid the language altogether, at least, that's my answer in relationship to my poetry.

6:02 PM  
Blogger Ariel said...

Erin, in the realm of poetry, I'm definitly with you. The poetry caveat takes the discussion to a different level, since there's so little room to "reinvent."

I second the thought that poetry can't really bear the weight of empty words.

As regards prose and conversation, I think there's more leeway...

7:11 PM  
Blogger martin said...

I'd recommend Kinglesy Amis' The King's English as a fount of wisdom on attempting to preserve meaning in modern writing. He doubts the usefulness of etymology to determine the 'true' meaning, though, since this can be no guide to what people understand by an English word when they encounter it in English.

I would say the best way forward is to identify usages which are still understood but becoming forgotten: for example (in the UK at least), the specific meaning of 'nice' to mean 'precise, careful, fitting' is preserved in the phrase 'a nice question' meaning not a good or fair or easy q, but one which requires judgement to answer; so by deliberately using it in this narrow sense as often as possible it will be reclaimed from emptiness. It's probably toolate to save the word 'sad' to mean serious, important, rather than unhappy, although I believe that in phrases like ' a sad affair' (of a battle etc.) some element of importance as well as sorrow may be implied.

1:01 AM  
Blogger Sprittibee said...

Learning Latin, Greek and French sound fun. Even Hebrew, Aramaic, Russian, and Spanish... but I'm not up to the German challenge. I sound like I've swallowed a bug trying to speak German. It's better for the world if I just accept that it isn't my cup of tea.

I like the idea of reclaiming words. After all, they are ours to claim.

Let's see... Maybe if we just refuse to use their shopworn meanings, we'll start to automatically reclaim them without much effort. Just say no to street-talk!

Here are some sentences that aren't all that bad using extremely worn-out words that have been mentioned:

What a bonny nice* suit!

I felt the cool* chill from the night air. (now that's a difficult word to redeem!)

She shot me a long, sad* glance.

I think if most people would just eliminate the "uh"s and the "like"s from their vocabulary, we would all sound so much more intelligent! I have to admit, I have been known (as a child of the 80's) to add a little Valley-Girl nonsense to my normal, every-day spiel.

Or, I guess you could just eliminate over-used words if you just really don't like them any more. In that case, buy a Thesaurus. Carry it in your purse. I love my thesaurus.

9:09 PM  
Blogger piksea said...

There are a number of words which have become empty, that should never have their power revoked. I hear people refer to mean, unfair and/or unlikable people as "Nazis", or say that something is like "rape", or that they are being treated like a "slave." None of these are words to be thrown around so lightly, just for effect and yet we see it and hear it all the time.

9:47 AM  
Anonymous Faith said...

I think I cool thing would to be to list all the cliched words and then give links to online stores where you can buy a thesaurus. I don't think half of what I write would be any good without my trusty Roget's thesauraus. You could say, for instance, something to the effect that if you have been using any of these words lately, you should check out so-and-so's website.

4:58 PM  

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