This is a rant about several non-standard usages of words and phrases that have become common in the last few years. It’s kind of a petty rant, and you might think it’s a silly rant. But I haven’t had a rant in a while, so I think I deserve one.
First, I think portmanteaus are getting out of hand. We’ve got “Obamacare,” “Brangelina,” “ginormous,” “advertorial,” and God knows how many others. I even have a tube of “hydratensive” cortisone lotion.
Most of these are fitting, or at least clever and fun. And I guess it’s a half-second quicker to use a portmanteau in place of an “x,” an “and” and a “y.” More importantly, a portmanteau can save a few characters when we’re limited to 140, like when we’re texting… and maybe also when we’re sexting. So I’m not too riled up about portmanteaus. I just think we’re going portmanteauverboard with them. I’m getting portmaneauverload.
2. Anti-overused prefixes
The prefixes “pro-” and “anti-” also save time for writers and politicians who want to sum up the views of protagonists and antagonists with just four or five extra characters each. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it also exacerbates our tendency to reduce a complex issue to two opposing viewpoints. The speaker or writer throws in the prefixes and moves on to the next sentence without taking an extra 10 seconds to explain the two, three or four angles in the issue.
I think these two suffixes work better when they describe categorical support for or opposition to something. And I think that’s how they were used initially. Take anti-aircraft guns, for example. They were widely used for the first time in World War II, to blow enemy aircraft out of the sky. No time or reason for nuance. (And of course nobody needed to specify that they were “anti-enemy-aircraft guns.”)
But now we have “anti-illegal immigration” activists and God knows how many other compound pros and antis.
I understand their purpose. Take the phrase “anti-illegal immigration.” Nearly all of these activists say they’re against illegal immigration, not all immigration, and I think that’s true for most of them, as it is for most other Americans. But the “anti-” prefix makes the opposition seem absolute, visceral and categorical. It’s unfortunate, because illegal immigration is a complex issue. Those of us who oppose it have varied reasons for doing so, and I like to think that most of us understand that we have to balance that opposition against other priorities and values to one extent or another.
In sum: If a topic is complex enough to require an adjective, it’s tricky to be categorically for or against it.
On the other hand, I guess it makes sense when the goal is to pigeon-hole someone: “I believe the Republican Party will not nominate a pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-tax increase moderate from Massachusetts,” Newt Gingrich said of Mitt Romney on Sunday, according to the Associated Press.
3. An unlikely usage
When and why did “likely” become an adverb? News writers started using it as an adverb about five years ago, usually to express a probability of something happening in the future, as in this AP headline from last weekend: “Right-to-work protesters will likely continue if bill signed.” A couple of my friends have started using this construction in e-mails in the last year or so.
Nobody uses this construction when talking. So why in writing?
And did everybody forget the word “probably”? Here’s my little theory: Saying something “will probably” occur acknowledges that we don’t know for sure, and readers immediately recognize this because writers and speakers have been using the phrase “will probably” for hundreds of years. But a lot of news writers — and a lot of other people — want to avoid standing out as being uncertain. The phrase “will likely” doesn’t stand out that way (even though everyone who thinks about it for a split-second realizes that the writer is not really claiming to know the future.)
4. Growing misuse of “grow”
“Grow your business” has become a business buzzphrase in the last couple of years. I don’t think it’s because businesspeople have forgotten the verbs “build,” “expand” and “foster.” I think it’s a sort of jargon that the speaker or writer uses to identify with the business community, and to imply a sort of exclusivity, a sort of subculture.
“Grow” is supposed to be an intransitive verb in most cases: Children grow into adults. Improper use of a word grows out of control. It’s supposed to be transitive only when the object is something that grows biologically. Farmers grow crops. I’m growing a beard. When someone says he’s growing his business, I wonder how often he waters it and whether he’s using compost.
The grow-as-transitive buzzword has gotten so out of hand that I even hear and see it used to describe increases in numbers. “We’re growing subscriptions!” “Jim-Bob Inc. is growing jobs!” These are doubly silly: Not only do they misuse “grow” as a transitive verb; they’re saying that the subscriptions are getting bigger, or the jobs are getting bigger.