Yesterday and today there were substantial discounts on books at the bookshop where I work. I picked up a book I’d had my eye on for some time: Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. I read the introductory material and ten pages of the first chapter on the bus ride home yesterday. I’m hooked. McEntyre’s point is that language matters. It is a life-giving resource, but we can mis-use it. McEntyre wants us to be active in preserving and restoring language, using words with care and precision, not tossing them out as though they were worthless. In the first ten pages (all I’ve read remember) McEntyre decries the over-use, and so degradation, of words including wonderful, great, fantastic, incredible, and awesome. McEntrye most regrets the mis-use of awesome, as did my father, who often said “Only God is awesome.” Now, though, saying God is awesome doesn’t have the same ring as it once did. Is God awesome like those shoes you just bought, or like the dinner you ate at that new restaurant, or like the new song you really enjoyed on the radio? No. But since we use awesome for all those occasions, we make the comparison. Awesome has lost its particular nuance.
I stopped reading after McEntyre’s list of (great, wonderful) hyperbolic words we over-use because I thought about my dad and his reflections on the mis/over-use of awesome. Then I tried to think of more words that I might misuse or overuse in my own particular dialect. (Do all of us have our own particular ways of speaking? Can we call that a dialect? Probably not. There, I’ve already misused a word!) I came up with “cool” as a word I use without reference to its dictionary definition, and in fact, I probably don’t use “cool” to speak of temperature at all.
I thought of two ways I use the word “cool.” First, it can mean “I understand you, have no objections to what you have said, and in fact like what you have proposed.” Example conversation: Friend to me – “Let’s go to Alternative Grounds for iced coffee.” Me to friend – “Ok, cool.” Second, cool can mean “I really like this object or person, he/she/it is interesting and fun.” Example: I download iAnnotate, like what it does, and describe the app as So. Cool. I don’t think I use cool to mean anything else. If I’m talking about the weather, I’ll say it is not warm, or chilly, or cold. I’ll say a bit cold not cool. I’ll say that hot water or coffee has cooled off, but I won’t say the coffee is too cool to drink. It is too cold to drink. I’ve lost the temperature reference of “cool” in my world of words. Hmmm. This is interesting.
What words do you over- or mis-use?