In college, I took a twentieth-century literature course from a professor who constantly used the word “ostensibly.” He used it so much that I started keeping track one day in class. I had notched more than a dozen marks in the margin of my spiral notebook by the time he wound up his lecture on postcolonialism in J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians or whatever book we were discussing that day. While I remember enjoying the class quite a bit, what I really remember was “ostensibly.”
I’ve noticed that certain writers have an affinity for certain words, too. If you read a lot of articles by this journalist, or all the novels by that author, sometimes you’ll notice they’re liberal with their usage of certain words. Of course, the words have to be fairly specific or unusual to catch your eye. You’ll probably notice when a writer keeps using a word like “ostensibly” or say, ”inchoate.” Not so much with more ordinary words.
(Side note: I once heard someone say that you get a lifetime quota of “inchoate,” and if you’ve used that word in print more than twice times in your entire career, you’ve used up your quota. I have thus officially used up my “inchoate” quota in this blog entry. I reserve the right to use it again someday anyway. But you can ding me on it, if you want to.)
And frankly, it can get tiresome. I start to think, “What, do you not have a thesaurus lying around there somewhere?” and “You’re getting paid to write this, probably significantly more than I get paid, so can’t you vary the vocabulary up a little more?”
If you ever read William Safire’s “On Language” colum in the New York Times, you’re familiar with his little score-keeping ritual. He blasts people for lazy language usage, for using a popular word or phrase until it becomes so tired that it’s almost kind to call it a cliche. Along the same lines, a group of Oxford University researchers got so fed up with certain overrused expressions that they came up with the Top Ten Most Irritating Expressions in English in 2008. I’m absolutely guilty of No. 6. I’m sorry. And I’ll also plead guilty to No. 10: “it’s not rocket science.” I guess I could come up with something else that’s freakishly hard to do, like maybe understanding the current federal tax code. But that doesn’t roll off the tongue as nicely. I’ll try to do better.
Are there certain words that leap off the page when you read them because a writer relies on them so much, perhaps too much? Are you ever guilty of overrusing a particular word–or phrase? Are there words or phrases that you’d just as soon people ditch, once and for all?