The decade’s most iconic fraught words

Times Chronicle & Public Spirit - - OPINION - Jim Smart Of All Things Visit colum­nist Jim Smart’s web­site at jamess­mart­sphiladel­phia. com.

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.

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