Saturday, March 21, 2009

Wording the Pet Peeve

Text © Robert Barry Francos

In an episode from an earlier season of Family Guy, Stewie takes over the government and as a demand has a list of words or expressions he is banning, such as “irregardless.”

We all have words that are pet peeves. For me, it is not necessarily just words or expressions, but the overuse of them. Truly, words have always been overused: if not the “f-bomb,” which some of my friends seemed to discover as they went into Junior High (usually called Middle School now), there is the usually space fillers like, well, “like,” “y’know,” and “Know what I’m sayin’?”

I started to strongly notice this when I worked for a Fortune 500-based management-consulting firm. Around 1991, the word “synergy” starting being used to the point that nearly every document I worked on had this word thrown in to show some (or any) aspect of the tork of growth.

The overused word that is currently “grinding my gears” is “history.” Obama’s election is historic. While I would dread the alternative, are they trying to say that if McCain had won it would not have been historic? It would not have been written about in history books because he is an elderly white man? No matter who won it would have been “historic.” Obama’s election was a singularly important historic event, but it was not just “historic.”

Another case is, say, the current economy (or lack thereof). “It’s a(n) historic market.” Well, as a culture, we keep records of all the stock market results, don’t we? That means no matter what the market is doing, it’s history, or historic. Again, it’s a noteworthy moment in history, but no matter what the DOW is doing, it is “history.”

History means an event in the past. Lynn Sherr, in her 2006 book Outside the Box, comments how the word is used in broadcast media as any story that has been aired, no matter how long before, from years to seconds. While this use of the word may be her bane, I find it to be accurate. Any event, after it has happened, is history. When something amazing happens, it is as much history as is the mundane “man bites dog” event. There needs to be a new word that will apply to a singular or precedent breaking event.

The current expression that makes me grrr is referring to someone as “a statistic.” Some event happens, and it is said they are “now a statistic.” We are all statistics in today’s information heavy world. Picture a pie chart that is segmented into, say, “women who become teen mothers” at 40% (I’m making these numbers up) and “women who do not become teen mothers” at 60%. Well, both sides are “statistics,” if you are a mother or not. Referring to someone becoming a “statistic” because they became pregnant is only one side of the equation. Even if they do not, they are part of the statistic of those who avoid the situation.

We are all statistics in every single thing we do. We are in at least one group or another: those who do, those who don’t, or those who do not apply. The use of calling someone a statistic is usually in a negative connotation (accidents, crime, and so on), but we truly are all statistics in some form or another, whether the negative or the positive side. My favorite pie chart from that management firm, written by someone who apparently needs an ESL brush-up, had one side as “men” and the other as “non-men.” Of course, I fixed this, but kept the original hand-drawn because it was just too amusing.

Perhaps I’m being too grumpy, or sensitive (or, as my pal Alan recently called me, a curmudgeon). On a large scale, I know this is not important past a pimple on culture’s butt, and certainly I am not going to do a Stewie and take over to enforce my pet peeve, but…take heed!


  1. Definitely sick of the word "historic" and how every single event, moment, proposition and incident of this administration is considered "historic." It's not a political thing with me, it's simply misuse and overuse of the word. Enjoyed your post! Found it by looking up "overuse of the word historic" - your post was just what I was looking for!!

  2. Hey Erica, thanks for the kind words. The overuse of "historic" was originally pointed out by my partner, and I just fleshed it out and ran with it, and then added my own about statistic. Nice to know some search engines are picking up my blog. Feel free to comment again in the future!