Blogs > Jim Collins' Editor's Notebook

Jim Collins is editor emeritus of The News-Herald and also serves as executive in residence at Lakeland Community College. His popular weekly column appears each Sunday in Comment in The News-Herald.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Words lose meaning in today’s odd use patterns

What’s the good word?

That’s a greeting I’m sure you have heard four million times. People aren’t really looking for a good word, however. It is merely a lighthearted salutation, such as, “What’s up?” or “What do you know?” Or even, “How are you?”

Your greeter doesn’t really want to know what is up, what you know or even how you are. Those are just conversation starters.

But when the query involves a “good word,”  there are multitudes of them.

Comedian George Carlin says there are 400,000 thousand words in the English language. But he adds, with a warning, there are seven words you can’t say on television.

“They must be really bad words,” he says, adding, “you seven, go over there. You can’t be with the others.”

The seven words you can’t say on TV are pretty bad, and I have heard George’s recording so many times I can recite all of them — which I do not do in polite company.

But on some cable TV shows you can hear all seven of them at one time or another. Not just rat-a-tat one after another in rapid fire, as Carlin says them. But the producers do manage to work them in on a fairly regular basis.

And if you ever listen to comedian Jay Leno late at night, he manages to use some reasonably offensive language from time to time — words that he could easily do without. Frankly, I think he needs some new writers.

But I digress.

New words are constantly coming into the language. The dictionary people research them carefully to decide if they should be included in the latest editions of their volumes. Many of the new words are byproducts of new technology.

Some are coined by faddists. By common usage some are assimilated into the language and thus included in the latest editions of dictionaries. You have to be really hip and up-to-date with your street talk to keep up with the emerging language.

When I started in the news business, to give an example of a word that has emerged over those years, people used to be “arrested” by the police. Now, in many cases, they are “busted.” I never liked that usage, and never used it myself.

No matter how commonplace the usage, to me “busted” was never a proper synonym for “arrested.” But “busted” is not a new, emerging word. It is just a new definition of an old word.

I’ll tell you, there is a lot of that going on — redefining of old words to give them a new or different meanings.

One of the more obvious examples is “gay.” Gay used to mean happy, lighthearted. Not any more.

The word was commonplace in song lyrics. Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat “King” Cole used to sing about being gay. I don’t know if it is banned in song lyrics nowadays, but the old songs are still being played on the radio, and it is a bit startling to hear a singer employ the former usage of “gay” in today’s world.

See, that’s what I don’t like — the redefining of commonplace words to give them new and different meanings.

People who are fond of these new usages throw words about as if everyone knows what they are talking about. Frankly, I don’t.

And because of that, sometimes I have a hard time following the conversation.

I will give you four examples of words that are tossed around in today’s world of advanced learning. They confuse me every time:

Sustainability — Boy, there’s a good one. I think it has to do with environmentalism. If you build a windmill, you are sustaining something. I don’t know what, but you are considered a good citizen if you sustain something.

I always thought sustain meant to keep up or prolong or go on. I looked it up. I was right.

In court, when judges say, “Motion sustained,” they are upholding the words of one of the lawyers as proper and correct.

They aren’t talking about windmills.

Here’s another old word that totally confuses me in it new usage.

Metrics — For about a year, at board meetings of the Fine Arts Association in Willoughby, everything was metrics this and metrics that.

I never knew what they were talking about.

I know metrics when yards are being converted into meters, or wrenches are used on European cars that don’t fit regular cars.

But they (mostly two ladies) weren’t referring to the metric system of measuring. The were talking about something entirely different, and I never did figure out what it was.

I haven’t heard “metrics” at a board meeting for about a year now, so maybe they have settled all those disputes.
Here’s another new usage of an old word that I think I am beginning to understand. The word is:

Brand — A brand used to be something cowboys put on the side of a cow. That way, if the cow strayed over into another herd, the cowboy could go over and say, “Hey, wait a minute. That’s my cow. Look, that’s my Lazy Z brand.”

Or, in the olden days when people smoked, they would refer to their Old Golds or Lucky Strikes as their “brand.” Pepsodent  and Colgate are brands.

But I think the word now is employed mostly by advertising agencies to describe whatever it is a company calls itself.

For example, if the phone company calls itself AT&T, that is its brand.

But first is has to be approved. This is done by testing.

Ad agencies do their testing by sitting around big desk in the board room at, say, BBDO, and saying, “Let’s run it up the flagpole, boys, and see if anybody salutes.”

If anybody salutes, it becomes the brand.

There is one other old word with a new meaning that makes me crazy. It is:

Footprint — There is an entirely commonplace definition of the word that makes eminent common sense.

If you walk into the house with muddy shoes, you leave footprints on the kitchen floor. Police can trace footprints in the snow to nab burglars.

But not now. A footprint is something else, like Al Gore’s carbon footprint.

I sat next to George Milbourn at a First Health symposium last week.

He is on more boards than I am. He agrees: the newspeak is an abomination.

Getting back to the Fine Arts, the parking lot at the rear is part of its “footprint.” Can anybody explain that to me?

I got an email at the college the other day from Jennifer Smyser that said, “Are the metrics for your sustainability footprint impacting your brand? The people want to know.”

See what I mean about newspeak? It’s ubiquitous.

To leave a comment on this column, go to


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home