OnWords

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.

Twerk: A Celebration

Feb 11, 2014
Ochre Jelly / Flickr / Creative Commons

As 2013 fades into memory, along with it will probably fade the word “twerk.”

Why bring it up now, you ask, just when we thought we could free ourselves from the image of Miley Cyrus gyrating as if stricken by some heretofore unknown neurological condition?

OnWords: Because Science!

Jan 28, 2014
The Rocketeer / Flickr / Creative Commons

Those of us tuned in to social media have probably run across someone using a term like “because science” to explain something factual or amazing or both.

But “science” is often used when we really mean “technology.”

To see the difference, look at your cell phone. It’s a neat little bit of technology, but how often do we think about the science behind it? More to the point, how many of us really care?

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