The decade’s most iconic fraught words
When I was in high school, in days of yore or thereabouts, I discovered that I could assemble words on sheets of paper and people would give me money for them.
In those days, I knew a lot about the English language. I was on friendly terms not only with the more popular parts of speech, such as nouns and adverbs and prepositions, but could tell you about such neglected ones as conjunctions and interjections and gerunds.
At graduation, I received an award for “knowledge and correct use, oral and written, of the English language” (don’t mention me to any of my math teachers) and went off to a career of writing for newspapers and other purveyors of what was once called the King’s English but has been thoroughly democratized by now.
I don’t think about the intricacies of grammar much these days, but I enjoy watching as younger writers learn vocabulary from each other, over-using words profusely and sometimes altering their meanings.
Currently, a popular word is “decade.” Rarely does anyone in a newspaper or on radio and television news broadcasts say “10 years.”
The words “icon” and “iconic” are also an overworked fad, applied to wellknown persons, objects or whatever might be representative or symbolic of something.
Some dictionaries still give their first definition of “icon” to be an artistic religious image. Our language borrowed it for that use from Greek about 400 years ago. (That’s 40 decades.) And currently, a new definition is taking hold. An icon is a graphic symbol on a computer screen.
“Existential” is getting popular again. A simple definition of “existentialism,” from the Cambridge English Dictionary, is: “a system of ideas made famous by Jean Paul Sarte in the 1940s in which the world has no meaning and each person is alone and completely responsible for their own actions, by which they make their own character.”
The word is applied to persons by writers who presumably know what it conveys, but dictionaries offer such long and varied definitions that I doubt that its use by a newspaper writer tells much about the person described.
Another word that has been popping up in newspaper and magazine articles is “fraught,” an adjective that I always thought required a “with” to accompany it. Writers have been using such phrases as “a fraught situation” without pointing out what the situation was fraught with.
I don’t know how fraught grammarians feel about this, although they’ll probably denounce me for ending that last sentence with a preposition. (I’ve always liked Winston Churchill’s pronouncement: “Never end a sentence with a preposition. That is something up with which I will not put.”)
One peculiar word that writers have been dumping on us lately is “bespoke.” The word blossomed recently to be applied mostly to things stylish or fashionable. In the clothing business, it is the extreme opposite of “off-therack.”
But The Oxford English Dictionary, which enjoys digging up mummified words, found it in use in 1583, meaning something arranged for in advance.
The word somehow has invaded the entire language recently, wandering from being applied to clothing and shoes to bespoke investment portfolios, bespoke computer software and several bespoke soforths.
We’re also seeing in newspapers and magazines the word “woke,” meaning roughly (or maybe smoothly) “social awareness,” an old word in the African-American community that is now being used by current writers to show us how woke they are.