It Is What We Thought It Was

It Is What We Thought It Was
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2008

It's the first column of the new year, and faithful Laughing Stalk readers know what that means: Lake Superior State University's List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Misuse, Overuse, and General Uselessness.

Each year, for the last 33 years, Lake Superior State University (LSSU) of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan (official motto: We're up here!) has created a list of words they want people to stop saying, because they're used incorrectly, they're used too much, or they're just plain dumb.

The words, not LSSU. Or the people.

As a writer, language is my stock in trade. So when an institution of higher learning bans words, I try to pay attention. To spread the news, I've wordsmithed a column about The List for the past four years. Or at least I did, until LSSU banned the word "wordsmith."

So I asked if I could say I authored a column, but they said axed "authored" too. Which means I have to settle for "writed" like everyone else.

There are some naysayers who believe The List is worn out and has lost its usefulness. That it's nothing more than a way for the little school in Michigan's Upper Peninsula to attract attention to themselves.

To those people, I say, "it is what it is."

Actually, it isn't anymore, because they banned that phrase too.

"It means absolutely nothing and is mostly a cop out or a way to avoid answering a question that might require genuine thought or insight," said phrase submitter Doug Compo.

I happen to like the phrase. It's a great rhetorical answer to a rhetorical question. Rhetorical questions aren't supposed to mean anything, so rhetorical answers shouldn't either.

If the phrase is truly banned, then let me suggest my son's new favorite, "they are who we thought they were!" from the Coors Light commercial. When you hear it hollered by a five-year-old, it's hilarious.

But LSSU is nothing if not consistent, so they threw it under the bus.

"Under the bus" has also been thrown under the bus.

A phrase of misplaced blame, it's often used to offer up a scapegoat to a bad situation, as in "Cam Cameron was thrown under the bus for the Miami Dolphins' abysmal 1-15 record this year."

In a show of support for our troops, I think we should change it to "under the tank" and revive it. I think it will catch on.

"Perfect storm" washed out this year too. It originally meant a simultaneous-but-highly-unlikely occurrence of events. But it's been downgraded to an above-average coincidence or brief collection of events, as in "The New Hampshire presidential primaries are a perfect storm of puffery and egotism."

"Hands off book titles for cheap descriptors!" hollered contributor David Hollis in response.

For the most part, I agree with David's Sound and Fury. But literary references are sometimes the best way to convey a message. It's a real Catch-22, and All the President's Men couldn't change it if they tried.

Critics often decry LSSU's List for decimating our popular culture's trite clich├ęs. And yes, I'm using "decimate" correctly, since they had a go at that one as well.

Decimation was originally an Ancient Roman practice of reducing prisoner of war populations by one-tenth, hence the name 'deci.' They lined up ten prisoners, who drew straws. The "winner" was killed, and the other nine were spared. (This is similar to tithing, which only decimates your income.)

Nowadays, we say "decimate" when we mean annihilated, wiped out, or thrown under a tank.

Speaking of which, it would be so sweet if my phrase "under the tank" became popular. Or it would have been, if LSSU hadn't killed "sweet" too.

"Youth lingo overuse, similar to 'awesome,'" said contributor Gordon Johnson.

"It really sounds stupid coming from the mouths of adults," said Wayne Beaver. "It became popular with the advent of the show 'South Park.'"

Actually, Wayne, "sweet" is much older than South Park I was saying itwhen I was in high school, back in the day. At least I was, until LSSU whacked "back in the day."

According to contributor Liz Jameson, it used to mean something "really historical."

Really historical? Like when I was in high school, wa-a-a-a-y back 25 years ago? Thanks a lot. Under the tank with you!

You have to hand it to LSSU. Thirty-three years later, and they're still watching our words. You'd think they would slow down, but no. They clamp down on bad language, like an obsessive-compulsive pit bull. They're kind to language enthusiasts, cruel to the illiterati, and a bane to lazy talkers and slang slingers everywhere.

They are who we thought they were.

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