“Children don’t start trends. That’s why I like them.—Fran Liebowitz, misanthrope extraordinaire
The trends that bug me the most are linguistic. Some years ago I began noticing the process by which a new word or phrase, or new usage for an old word or phrase, enters the public sphere and spreads – or, to use a trendy term, goes viral. I think we can safely assume that technological advances have something to do with the way linguistic trends catch fire and spread these days. Linguistic trendiness has always existed, but technology has hastened and heightened the process.
The first phrase I recall noticing in this way was The end of the day – though come to think of it, I also noticed The bottom line, which reached celebrity status sooner, I believe. It’s just that after The end of the day I began paying more attention.
I don’t know why trendy words and phrases grate on my nerves so much–maybe it’s that I sense they’re being used the way people use name-dropping: to show off. Instead of choosing a word for its meaning, people choose a word or phrase that’ll indicate their own hipness. Not sophistication, mind you; not intelligence; hipness is all.
One of the hottest words making the rounds these days is transparent, and its noun form, transparency. I believe the word’s popularity derives from President Obama’s administration: during the campaign they swore they wouldn’t run the country from behind closed doors like the last administration, that everything going on in the White House and the government would henceforth be transparent. They even put up a website to maintain transparency. Now, none of this bothered me. What did bother me was when, almost a year later, I was speaking candidly and somewhat emotionally to a person I was just getting to know, and she commented – apparently with admiration – that I was being transparent. I immediately stopped being it.
That’s how linguistic trends work: someone uses a word to describe something in a new way – in this case, the spin doctors decided transparent government sounded more impressive than the previously used open government. The word makes the rounds – in this case for nearly a year – while the general population adopts it. Problems occur when the word becomes so ubiquitous, and people are so eager to use it, they begin applying it incorrectly. Transparency is not interchangeable with honesty; in fact, it’s a profound perversion, putting a negative connotation on what was a positive adjective. I mean, who wants to be described as transparent?
Another linguistic trend currently in process is passion—not to refer to l’affaires de la coeur, but to describe strong feelings toward work or art or some other activity, as in, Writing is my passion. People are being told to find and follow their passion the way they used to follow their bliss. This one snuck up on me: though it’s most often used to describe love or lust for another human being, it isn’t unusual to be used in the trendy manner, so I didn’t notice it until I’d heard it some two dozen times from the mouths of life coaches, motivational speakers, and ordinary people striving to improve their lives.
Linguistic trends don’t always pervert a word’s original meaning; still, when repeated over and over on radio, television, online and in print, any word or phrase will eventually weaken (i.e., lose its passion).
The phrase bugging me more than any other these days is spot on—as in, Your essay about trendy words was spot on. We used to say right on, a phrase with its roots in hippiedom. Spot on always makes me think the speaker is holding a teacup handle with her gloved pinky pointed out to the side. Doesn’t it sound like upper-class British? I must say, old chap, that was spot on!
This issue of linguistic trendiness isn’t just mental masturbation; it’s extremely relevant to me. As a ghostwriter, I do a lot of non-fiction books on current topics, so the language has to be contemporary and lively. Lately I find myself agonizing over whether or not to use a trendy term in place of one that’s merely serviceable. Just the other day I wanted to say that something or other was appropriate, and thought of using spot on. When I replaced appropriate with spot on, a chill went up my spine. I clicked Undo Typing. I then went back and forth dozens of times, changing the phrase again and again. When I used spot on, I felt like I was showing off, proving to my clients that I’m oh-so-hip. By not using it, though, I was afraid the writing wasn’t zippy enough. I don’t even remember how I finally left it.
I realize that language is a fluid process, that words are supposed to change and evolve over time, reflecting social changes. Somehow, though, this business of linguistic trendiness doesn’t feel like a natural evolution, it feels like one-upmanship.
What do you think? Is trendy language a natural process, or is it just a way of showing off? And does it even matter? Am I overstating the trivial? Vote early and often.