Since 1976, Michigan's Lake Superior State University (LSSU) has taken its cue from the general public in identifying which misused, overused and/or useless figures of speech most deserve eradication from the English language. Over the years, the annual Banished Words List, released on New Year's Day, has suggested the expulsion of such annoyances as "you know," "have a nice day" and-several times-"basically."
This year's list, comprising 17 instances of pop-culture vernacular, was selected from more than 6,000 nominations received during 2003 from the United States, Canada and sundry locations worldwide.
"Rather than vent their frustrations or just kick in a word because it bothers them," said John Shibley, co-compiler of the list, "we encourage people to provide us with a compelling, humorous reason for why we should put a word on our list."
Military operations in Iraq made a particular impact on the 2004 list, with the highly reviled "shock and awe" receiving about 700 votes. Shibley noted the term's special ability to permeate "areas outside the media coverage of the particular conflict." A Texas man's wry prediction that consumers might see the introduction of a "Shock and Awe Laundry Soap" wasn't far from reality; shortly after U.S. bombing of Baghdad commenced last March, Sony engaged in some major backpedaling because of negative reactions to its registration of a "Shock and Awe" computer game trademark.
The Iraq conflict also put a new spin on "smoking gun."
"Let's give the 21-gun salute to this overused analogy," one nominator suggested, while another wondered, "What's wrong with "hard evidence'?"
One Iraq-ism that came in just under the wire before the late-December nomination deadline: "captured alive." A California nominator observed, "The news keeps stating that Saddam Hussein was "captured alive.' Well, what other way are you going to be captured? Maybe "found dead' or "discovered dead' [but] never "captured dead.'" Another late contender, "spider hole," didn't make the final cut, but has continued to receive many votes into the New Year.
The term "embedded journalist" provoked a nomination from a Maryland journalist who informed LSSU that he'd never heard the term "until the [Iraq] war started. ... In the interest of objectivity, journalists probably shouldn't be embedded with any organization they regularly cover." A San Diego woman had a more visceral reaction: "The next time I hear it used by the media, I'm going to embed my foot in the TV!"
Entertainment media was taken to task for using "ripped from the headlines" when describing shows based on true stories (think Law & Order). The equally dramatic "shots rang out" also garnered numerous votes for permanent retirement.
The 2004 list also recognized the ascendance of "bling bling."
"This once street slang for items of luxury has now become so overused and abused," a Chicago man complained, "your mom might say it. Nothing could kill the mystique of a word faster."
"Metrosexual," defined by LSSU as "an urban male who pays too much attention to his appearance" (think U.K. soccer star David Beckham) created a different kind of controversy. A nominator from Arizona thought it sounded like a person "who only has sex downtown or on the subway." Shibley said a number of correspondents expressed discontent with the use of metrosexual as a comfort word for heterosexuals who "can't really admit to the fact that they're embracing elements of the gay culture."
"LOL," Internet shorthand for "laugh(ing) out loud," and what LSSU labeled "other abbreviated "e-mail speak,' including the symbol "@' when used in advertising" received widespread censure. A nominator from Warsaw, Poland wrote, "OMG! u r chattin to sum1 then...lol this and lol that....Get it away!"
"We've dealt with abbreviated thinking before," Shibley said, recalling the flak generated by the inclusion of "9/11" on the 2002 banished words list. "A lot of nominees thought "9/11' was cut from the same cloth as "J-Lo,' "24/7' and all of the other abbreviations that are creeping into our daily language."
A Canadian nomination listed marketing applications of the letter "X"-as in X-files, Xtreme, Windows XP and X-Box-as part of a "PR-powered phenomenon" designed to capture the Gen-X demographic.
Also deeply despised: "punked," "companion animals," "in harm's way," the oxymoronic "sanitary landfill" and the obscure "hand-crafted latte" (because, according to one nominator, applying ""hand-crafted' to the routine tasks of the modern-day equivalents of soda jerks cheapens the whole concept of handicraft").
Shibley said he especially enjoyed quirky dark horses like "sweat like a pig" and the "place stamp here" directive found on many business return envelopes. The latter prompted one New Yorker to ask, "Can we legitimately claim to be a superpower if we need to be reminded to put a stamp on an envelope?"
Fessing up to the list's tongue-in-cheek nature, Shibley thought it might still serve a cautionary purpose. "Plato said the unexamined life is not worth living," he explained. "Our opinion is the unexamined word is not worth speaking."