Thursday, January 3, 2008

A Rose is a Rose...

Lake Superior State University recently released its 2008 List of Banished Words. Overused and misused, the words represent a compilation of the worst offenders over the past year. Some of the words and phrases have origins in politics, like “surge” and “post-9/11.” Others are rooted in the environment, like “perfect storm” and “organic.” What’s interesting about a list like this is that it shows how words can, in a very short amount of time, be co-opted into common culture in such a way that they lose their meaning. Their true definition, in essence, is lost—they have no more gravitas. Let’s take organic. It’s now being applied to everything from toiletries to management theory. When automotive companies start to use the word to describe their cars, you know something is amiss. Forget about the fuel going in and the white exhaust coming out and focus instead on the innovative floor mat made from recycled plastic bags. And hey, while we’re at it, let’s add “Innovative” to the above list.

Over the years, I’ve been fascinated by how a word can be newly employed and then propagate. It is suddenly discovered, like the latest ingĂ©nue. And just as suddenly, it becomes tainted. Return again to organic. Food is a very interesting place to start. Menus offer one of the best forums for misused vocabulary and could probably be one of the better anthropological tools to study cultural trend. In 2001, while passing through Grand Rapids, Michigan, I had dinner with friends at what was said to be a trendy downtown restaurant. The menu read as though someone cut and paste adjectives from other menus in an attempt to dress up their pretty standard fare. The best example was the side dish of “organic, free-range asparagus.” My dinner companion, a New Zealand chef with a thick accent, asked the young waitress, “How on earth did they catch the little buggers running around the range like that?”

To which she replied: “I’m not sure, but it is the best asparagus you can get!”

Lately, I’ve noticed “artisan” is becoming massively abused. It’s being tacked on to menu descriptions for just about everything, ignoring its definition as “something (as cheese or wine) produced in limited quantities often using traditional methods.”

The word “hand” is popping up a lot, too. As in:

handmade (now replacing homemade)

“Hand carved bread” is a good one. First off, does it truly matter if a human hand slices the bread versus a machine? And can you actually “carve” bread into a slice?

Apparently, we all want to think of our food as individualized morsels made by craftsman carefully applying age-old trade techniques. But it sounds pretty funny when it’s on the menu at Olive Garden. Or when spotted at a local coffee shop: “Hand-picked organic herb artisanal teas. Available in bulk.” I’m not kidding.

The food industry is not the only one to abuse language, of course. Every profession has its lingo, its lexicon. We develop a kind of short hand when we talk with one another in a certain field and it can alienate those outside the profession. Perhaps some of the biggest offenders are architects and urban planners. Their rarefied and codified terminology and philosophy can leave those outside their world in the dark. And more often than not, it is the very people they are trying to serve: their clients. Jeremy Harris, the Mayor of Honolulu from 1994-2004, addressed just this issue. To combat the bad urban planning besieging his city and return to a more human-focused design approach, he set about creating master plans for various neighborhoods. He wanted the citizens to be a part of the visioning process, but he understood that communication with public officials would pose a challenge. So he gave residents disposable cameras and told them to take pictures of what they liked and disliked in their community. Then, pictures in hand, the residents participated in a charette with architects and planners. This way, the residents could have a shared language with the professionals, albeit a visual one.