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Some words have become uselessness because of misuse

Language is always changing, despite the best—or curmudgeonly—efforts of those who might like to slow down the process or would simply like the language to facilitate communication rather than muddy or inflame it.

In the process of change, a few words become useless for meaningful communication.  Some seem to have drifted gradually, while others have been given an unseemly boot toward uselessness.

Sometimes a word has so many squishy meanings that it is useless.  That is what you don’t often see in The Fig Tree. 

There is always a more precise word available.

Nice is an excellent example of a word that has changed gradually.  Over the centuries, a nice person or idea could have been ignorant, foolish, wanton, refined, fastidious, precise, subtle, nit-picking, pleasant, attractive or courteous. 

Today nice is a general term of approval that doesn’t mean much of anything in particular.  If a person is generally inoffensive and pleasant and you don’t have a specific opinion of him or her, you say he/she is nice.

Incidentally, a measure of the uselessness of such words is how much space a dictionary must give to them. 

“Get” takes up one-and-a-half columns in the dictionary I use most often, and “nice” takes a quarter of a column. 

The more imprecise a word, the more room it takes, spreading like Silly Putty over the page.
Some words have become less useful lately because they are being used as perjoratives, inflaming rather than informing conversation.  Conservative, liberal and radical are used to reject both a concept and its bearer without having to talk about anything of substance.
 
An idea, person or program that is conservative, liberal or radical can be put down automatically as evil, distasteful or dishonest if it is not of the same political persuasion as you are.   So what is there to discuss?

Was it the Queen who told Alice that, when she used a word, it meant what she wanted it to mean?  That may have worked in Wonderland, but it certainly complicates ordinary life.
 
One of the most interesting victims of this approach today is socialism—the word, not the concept.
Almost anything disliked or mistrusted can be labeled “socialist” today. 

The phrase, “slippery slope of socialism,” has been repeated so often by one politician and a few commentators that it is appearing as a dire warning in letters to the editor and online opinion pieces.

The main problem with these dire warnings is the failure to give an accurate explanation of  the connection between what is actually socialism and the concept being dismissed. 

The terms “socialism” and “socialist” have become all-purpose condemnations for some, taking the place of “communism” and “communist” of an earlier era.

Life could not only be simpler but also more civilized if we talked thoughtfully about what we are really talking about, rather than pushing hot buttons and creating distrust.

Not only in our personal conversations but also in media coverage, more precise use of words will reduce stereotyping, buzz words and their propagandistic effects.

Nancy Minard - Editorial team