We here at Harpyness are utterly convinced that language matters. We’ve gone on record with our feelings on the multitude of names for ladyparts, for example. And we’re always up in someone’s grill about the way language contributes to sexism and stereotypes. But we’re also just plain into words, as you can probably tell by how many of them we pour into this site every day. Personally, I’ve spent my entire professional life making a living from words and writing, and every single day gives me a chance to appreciate the dynamism and versatility of English, which shamelessly borrows from every culture in the world, giving it the widest and deepest word pool of any language. It’s truly one of the greatest achievements of humankind.
That said, there are plenty of English words that are stupid or squicky or that you wish would just go away. And who better to ask about those words than poets, whose talent lies in distilling the fewest number of words into the most vivid language? At the recent Ledbury festival in England, poets were asked “which word do you hate most and why?” Some of the responses were brilliant. Check out Philip Wells’s explanation of his hatred for the “should sound nice but doesn’t” word pulchritude:
“It violates all the magical impulses of balanced onomatopoeic language – it of course means”beautiful”, but its meaning is nothing of the sort, being stuffed to the brim with a brutally latinate cudgel of barbaric consonants. If consonants represent riverbanks and vowels the river’s flow, this is the word equivalent of the bottomless abyss of dry bones, where demons gather to spit acid.”
The one I most agreed with, though, was Welsh poet Rhian Edwards on chillax: “the most unnecessary and obnoxious linguistic blend to have ever been coined.”
There are some similar words that raise my hackles with their sheer laziness. Don’t tell me you want to have a convo, for example. I love a conversation. A convo makes me want to smack you. So does your rhapsodizing about your great summer vacay. Just use the whole fucking word, okay? Cutting a syllable won’t save you that much time, but it will make you look like a moron.
And for the record, I’ve always hated herstory. I love feminism and I love history. I do not love it when feminism takes the perfectly decent and not even remotely sexist word history and gives gender reassignment surgery to its first syllable. The word is not a combination of the English words his+story. It’s from the Greek verb historien meaning “to inquire.” There’s no gendered English his to it, so can we all please direct our outraged red pens elsewhere? After all, there are plenty of other words and phrases that genuinely do need them.
What words get under your skin? Which ones should the language police crack down on? Let’s have a conversation in the comments…