OnWords

What Is 'Privilege?'

Jul 1, 2014
Quinn Dombrowski / Flickr / Creative Commons

When Princeton student Tal Fortgang recently complained on Time magazine's blog that, as a white male, he had been repeatedly “reprimanded” to “check his privilege,” the Internet exploded in somewhat predictable ways.

I'll let you and Facebook explore what all is being said about Fortgang's piece, but the word privilege deserves some scrutiny.

Steve Jurvetson / Flickr / Creative Commons

One language trait I've noticed recently is a peculiar use of the word “around.”

Someone might be describing a new organizational initiative and say, “Let's get together and have a discussion around the new viral marketing campaign.” What the person would have said prior to the around ascendancy is, of course, “Let's get together and have a discussion about the new marketing campaign.”

So what's all this about around—or rather around it? Or whatever?

bunky’s pickle, flickr Creative Commons

When I was in high school in the 1980s, well-meaning grown-ups set about trying to break down labels and stereotypes. The destructive categories of race and class, the social strata of jocks and geeks, goths, stoners, and punks, they thought, were destructive to our young psyches and to the orderly running of the school.

“Excellence” ranks right up there with terms like “professionalism” and “family values” as power terms, the vagueness of which is used to subject people to all manner of indignity and peonage.

“Excellent” we might lovingly associate with Wayne's World or Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, in which it's a term of universal application to all things righteous, gnarly or dope. But that same universalism is exactly what makes “excellence” so dangerous.

OnWords: Let Me Explain

May 6, 2014
Fellowship of the Rich / Flickr / Creative Commons

'Splain, as a contraction for “explain,” has long been with us, but I originally began to appreciate its comic potential in a creative writing workshop in graduate school. The inestimable Steve Johnson had submitted an uncharacteristically inscrutable poem, and after we all had contorted our minds trying to figure it out, we finally just turned to him and asked, “Steve, what in the heck does this even mean?” With total composure and deadpan wit, he replied, “I just write 'em. I don't 'splain 'em.”

Understanding Creativity

Apr 22, 2014
elaine faith / Flickr / Creative Commons

Creativity is another one of those words that we throw around as if we know what we're talking about.

But we're fundamentally conflicted about creativity-- perhaps because, in practice, it's somewhat mysterious.

We'd all agree that creativity is about bringing new things into the world: new products, new ideas, new perspectives. We sometimes use "creativity” synonymously with words like “innovation” and “originality.”

Gavin Clabaugh / Flickr / Creative Commons

Maybe most remarkable about the term “the market,” is the incredible variety of ideas it invokes.

The market, at its most mundane, conjures an image of a grocery store with its rainbow wash, the visual signatures of myriad brands all competing for our eyes, and for the dollars that follow. We also retain this cultural memory: the market as a place for basket-weavers and growers to hock their wares, for handmade rugs to rub up against stacks of kohlrabi.

Nestle / Flickr / Creative Commons

The word “product” is shifting.

One of my brothers overheard the following at a big-box retailer the other day: “We have various safety devices to keep product from falling on people.”

This use of product as mass noun stands in distinction to the term “a product,” a term identifying something as, well, produced.  

angela7dreams / Flickr / Creative Commons

At one time, the word granular was almost always reserved for something physical or technical, for example, as a measure of the resolution of a photographic emulsion, or of how fine the sugar.

But recently, I’ve noticed granular used in office settings to indicate a level of detail that the speaker would rather avoid. It’s generally said with a certain tinge of disdain as well, something like, “Well, we could talk about that some other time, but we don’t want to get into the granular level here.”

OnWords: Too Much Drama

Feb 25, 2014
Wikimedia Commons

The word “drama” has recently gained a new definition.

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