The Word

Stop saying that!

A 2009 expression to forget

By Jan Freeman
January 3, 2010

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It’s that time of year again in wordland--the time when dictionaries choose Words of the Year (unfriend, distracted driving), when the American Dialect Society votes on which terms sum up the times (sexting? Octomom?), and when Lake Superior State University, paddling against the current, issues its list of Banished Words (and phrases), like 2009’s ”it’s that time of year.”

The banished words, of course, often overlap with the words of the year. LSSU’s deciders, rushing to show their superior taste, often try to kill off expressions that are nowhere near their expiration date. (Twenty years ago, they tried to outlaw liposuction, drug czar, and fax, the verb.) Predicting usage change is hard enough; legislating it is a fool’s errand.

But this year, for once, I’m sailing on the ship of fools. I too have an expression to nominate for banishment. It’s not gone missing or could care less or any of the usual suspects, though; it’s a bit of hyperbole with endless variations, all of which I would be happy never to see again.

My nominee isn’t new, but last February I noticed it in a classier location than its usual haunts. At John McIntyre’s language blog, You Don’t Say--where readers are asked to ”keep a civil tongue in their heads”--one commenter posted a complaint about the language of a TV weatherman. ”Tonight he came up with ’the evening-hour time frame’,” said the commenter. ”Made me want to dig my eyeballs and eardrums out with a soup spoon.”

Ouch, I said, and also yuck. But after all, this wasn’t in a glossy magazine; and by the standards of comment on the wild Web, it sounds like Emily Post.

The trouble is, what happens on the Web isn’t like what happens in Vegas. It travels. Only a month after that blog encounter, as I read Newsweek in a doctor’s office, I found a business writer imputing similar feelings to his father: ”My dad would rather gouge out his own eyes than spend $4 on a latte at Starbucks,” he said.

Newsweek, of course, would hesitate to use such graphic language about an actual maiming (unless there was a good excuse, like a national security angle). Like most print media, it still tries to avoid offending readers over the small stuff--dirty words, split infinitives, who for whom. And traditionally, this restraint has applied to figurative or hyperbolic language, too.

At the Baltimore Sun, where McIntyre used to run the copy desks, the eye-gouging imagery would be off limits, he confirmed. Figurative language that’s ”gratuitously violent or distasteful” is unwelcome, as the paper’s writing guidelines make clear. ”Hyperbole, and particularly death hyperbole,” is not to be used flippantly. ”Repulsive metaphors have no place in the paper.” The cautionary example is an oyster simile I won’t quote, since it might make you want to…you know.

Or maybe it wouldn’t; not all stomachs are equally sensitive. But I’m not the only audience member who’s turned off by eye-gouging and other graphic torments. There’s a reason ”Un Chien Andalou” is still famous, and it isn’t the movie’s plot.

Now, it’s true that some images of hurting oneself are time-honored phrases. ”Cutting off your nose to spite your face” has been around since the 16th century. ”It’s better than a sharp stick in the eye” has been faint praise at least since the 1870s. Children have sworn ”cross my heart, hope to die” for more than a century, and for many of them, the next line is ”stick a needle in my eye.” Eventually, such familiar phrases lose some of their shock value.

And many of the newer expressions are more jocular than visceral; ”I’d rather gnaw my arm off,” ”eat my own leg,” ”chew my foot off,” say the jollier hyperbolists on the Web, achieving verbal extravagance without triggering the gag reflex. If we could leave the images at that level of abstraction, I’d be content.

But there seems to be an arms race underway in the self-maiming metaphor department. For every slacker who’s content with chewing off his foot, there’s a striver piling on the dreadful details: ”I’d rather drill my eyeball with a power tool.” ”Stick my hand in a meat grinder.” ”Pull out my fingernails with pliers.” If the print media catch the hyperbole virus, will the real world’s troubles seem shrunken in comparison?

And yes, since you ask, I would also like 2010 to be a farewell year for ”I threw up a little in my mouth.” But on that score--unlike the eye-gouging fad--I’m optimistic. The expression remains rare in print, and by 2006 one magazine had labeled it ”so 2005.” Last week it got a mumbled half-mention on ”Scrubs,” but with luck, that will be too little, too late.

Happy new year, and don’t run with scissors in your hand.

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is; for more language commentary go to her blog, Throw Grammar from the Train,