Category Archives: vocabulary

Standing Watch Against Twice-Dying

mjI am not the sort to kick a man when he’s down or dead, but I am the sort to kick around some of the people who go a little bit too far in commemorating his death, especially if the misuse of the English language is involved.


From the Associated Press

In China, thousands of fans in cities held vigils for Jackson over the weekend. … About 200 fans gathered for a candlelight vigil in a Tokyo park.

From WHAM TV (Rochester, NY):

Fans of Michael Jackson gathered in Detroit Sunday night for a candlelight vigil in memory of the King of Pop.

From WRBL (Columbus, GA):

The official city-wide candlelight vigil celebrating the life of Michael Jackson, the king of pop, will be held Tuesday evening from 7p-9p in the 1100 block of Broadway.

To be fair, one definition of vigil is the act of keeping awake at times when sleep is customary (from our friends at, but even that definition is stretched to fit what’s going on at 7:00 in the evening in Georgia. A vigil is an act of watching or surveillance; in the context of someone who is ailing or dying, a vigil is sometimes kept so that people may lift up prayers for recovery, or even so that someone might not die alone. This kind of vigil, with or without candlelight, is a special thing. I think of that great sequence in Rocky II when Rocky refuses even to look at his new baby until Adrian returns to consciousness, because he is determined that they will look at him together.

Vigil is related to vigilante or vigilant. It’s a very cool, very powerful word, but it does not describe what Jackson’s mourners are doing this week by candlelight all over the world.

I swear, I am not trying to minimize anyone’s grief, but call it a memorial. Call it a wake. Call it group catharsis, or a freak show, or a chance for people to sell t-shirts, but please, please do not call it a vigil. The King of Pop is dead, and you cannot stand vigil against his dying again or against the truth and finality of his dying.

It Was Super-Duper-Mega-Maxi-Ultra-Omni-Uber Awesome!

In a capitalist society such as America’s, marketing is an inescapable fact of life. We are forever bombarded by messages asking us to consider some product that is better, faster, stronger, and less expensive than every other product available. In an effort to get our attention, marketers are forced to find new words with which to communicate the awesomeness of whatever they are selling.

A product cannot be merely good if it hopes to grab our dollars; it must be wonderful. The next product cannot simply be wonderful; it must be fantastic! with an exclamation point.

This wouldn’t bother me so much—since I do love good capitalism—if the linguistic trend toward more exciting words (I call it superlative inflation) were limited to advertising. However, since so much of the language we are exposed to is delivered by advertising, it is affecting our own language, and this must stop.

I heard someone mention a book the other day, and the person to whom she was speaking said, “I hear that’s a phenomenal book.” Less than thirty minutes later, she was talking about a phenomenal sandwich she had for lunch.

I haven’t read the book and I didn’t taste the sandwich, so for all I know, both the book and sandwich were phenomenal, but I sincerely doubt it! This need we have to keep reaching for more and more powerful words, while admirable on one level, is annoying on another. Yes, I love it when people seek new, descriptive language, but yes, I also find it annoying when people latch onto certain words and use them so much that they lose their meaning.

There is nothing wrong with saying a sandwich was very good. Or delicious, even. A book can also be very good. Can we please save words like phenomenal for those books and sandwiches that truly deserve the description? Watch your own writing very carefully for this kind of superlative inflation. Do you have pet words you use too often, when other, less infomercial-sounding language would be sufficient?

If you’re remembering your high-school English teacher’s telling you to avoid words like good and bad in your formal writing, she and I are both proud of you. It is probably best if you use a stronger, more specific word. My suggestion, then, is to be specific in your descriptions. If you’ve heard that a book is very good, what specifically have you heard? You could write something like, “I hear that book is engrossing,” or “I hear the characters are instantly likable.” If you had a yummy sandwich, you could write something about how fresh the ingredients tasted, or how the flavor combination was just what you were hoping for.

A word like awesome, which really means inspiring fear, dread, or wonder, should be powerful enough when used correctly. However, it has been cheapened so that it just means good. Now, when someone means to say that something really was awesome, he or she is forced to say something like, “It was literally awesome.” This should not be happening. Let’s keep an eye on our excited language and do our best to communicate what we really mean.

You’re Going to Bring WHAT Back to Life?

Here’s one I hear a lot more in local conversation here in Hawaii than I actually read in national publications, but it’s worth noting. Or perhaps it’s worth nothing, but it is fun to talk about.

Take a look at this excerpt from an article in the Suffolk (Virginia) News-Herald in which an old courthouse’s renovation project is described.

Younger Suffolk residents and newcomers to the city probably wonder about the building on the corner of East Constance Road and North Main Street.

Its distinguished columns and commanding presence likely betray its former use as the courthouse, even before one reads the word above the front door. The American flag, still raised faithfully every morning, flaps in the springtime breeze outside.

Everything’s okay so far, but then, later:

The project will not change the historical appearance of the building’s exterior much, Jones said, except for the back wall.

“We’re going to bring the backside back to life,” Jones said.

On the back wall, the contractor will construct a mezzanine floor, in between the first and second floors, to house rooms with mechanical supplies, such as the elevator workroom and the fire-sprinkler room.

Now take a look at the definition of backside from Merriam-Webster:

Function:  noun
Date:  circa 1500

: buttocks —often used in plural

Please notice that there is only one definition, and it has nothing to do with the flipside of a sheet of paper (I am often directed by people to look at the backside of a sheet of paper) or the back end of a building.

Please, please keep this definition in mind, and be ever vigilant in your own editing of this potentially embarrassing misuse of the word!