x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Tweet falls foul of the Lake Superior word banishers

A thoughtful colleague pointed me in the direction of the twin cities of Sault Ste Marie, which lie on either side of the United States and Canada border.

A thoughtful colleague has pointed me in the direction of the twin cities of Sault Ste Marie, which lie on either side of the United States and Canada border. Once a year since 1976, in a peculiarity of academic life on the American side, Lake Superior State University issues its "word banishment" list or, to give the title in full (without tampering with the unnecessary hyphenation), the List of Words and Phrases Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness.

No student of reactionary opinion on language would be surprised to learn that room was found in the 2010 selection for tweet, which is what people do - and also what they produce - when they communicate on the Twitter website, and a number of derivatives including retweeting, tweetaholic and twitterature. The committee responsible for sifting through nominations submitted by the public also frowned on "friend" and "unfriend" as verbs to describe the acts of establishing or severing links with fellow users of Facebook.

The university quotes Kevin K Morris, of Oklahoma, as wondering why, in the case of friend, people could not simply use befriend, "much more pleasant to the human ear and a perfectly useful word in the dictionary". Mr Morris did not go so far as to suggest unbefriend as the antonym. Both "chillaxin", a gruesome hybrid of relaxing and "chilling", and "bromance", for a close but non-sexual male friendship, have been banished without me being aware that they even existed. But then, I had also not heard until a few days ago of "ten dot" to mean 2010, so it is clearly my duty to get out more often.

Let us return to the 2010 list. The case against Obamacare, Obamanomics and similar constructions is easy enough to accept, and we would surely struggle to find a champion for "shovel-ready", apparently describing a project that is virtually complete and awaits only implementation, or "sexting" for sending explicit text messages. The "teachable moment", a lesson of any kind or an opportunity to make a point, is deplored, as are such terms, much favoured by the media and politicians, as transparency, stimulus, toxic assets and "too big to fail".

The tradition of banishing words and phrases was established by the late Bill Rabe when he was the university's director of publicity. He came up with the idea in discussion with friends at a New Year's Eve party in 1975 and the first list appeared on the following day. But does anyone take notice? History indicates that the offending terminology tends to survive. We can hardly claim that "at this point of time", in place of "now", has been shamed into disuse or that people who care about the words they use do their utmost to avoid scenario, meaningful or input, all examples from that first list.

Indeed, not everyone believes the university's failure to impose its will is a cause for regret. The Canadian columnist Colby Cosh wrote in his blog at the website of the current affairs magazine Maclean's that the list is "an endearing ironic reminder of our language's indispensable freedom from strangulating academic authority". He welcomed the fact that no one could actually "banish" words at all and mounted a strong defence of some of the terms chosen as this year's casualties. There is, he argues, no viable alternative to tweet for Twitter messages, and I reluctantly agree. Less convincingly, he insists that to "friend" people at Facebook is acceptable because the word means something different from befriending them in real life.

For the truth of the matter, I suspect, we must look beyond Mr Cosh's comments and also the strident views of the list's supporters. The exercise is not really an opportunity for Lake Superior academics to parade their superiority complex. It is a spot of harmless fun, accomplishing precisely what clever old Bill Rabe intended: generous publicity for a small and hitherto unsung educational institution.

Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at crandall@thenational.ae