Tag Archives: words

Questionable words.

Chocolate chicken with ketchup ice cream

by Annie Wei-Yu Kan

It is quite a relief not to have to read my ex-husband’s drooling perversions. I can continue to think of 69 as no more than a number on a menu. Anyway, in Mandarin, sixty-nine is liùshijiǔ, which has no perversion possibilities but could be heard to mean “rainwater is wine.”

I mention this just because in general we would not think of rainwater as wine. And we may not think of chicken feet as food. And we might not think of chocolate as suitable for a main course. And we are taught that ain’t isn’t a word, and impact isn’t a verb, and similar notions.

It’s true that rainwater isn’t wine, rainwater Madeira nothwithstanding. But you can drink it. As to the rest, no. When I said we I wasn’t including myself. Nor you, I hope, but I know you have some things to learn.

Let’s start with the idea that this or that word “isn’t a word.” We’ve all heard, I’m sure, that “ain’t ain’t a word.” This is like saying that hot dogs aren’t food.

Hot dogs aren’t fine food. It would be abnormal to serve them at a banquet, unless you were doing a special “slumming” sort of theme. You might, however, include them in a fancy menu, perhaps done up in a very clever way, as a bit of a reference to that kind of food we eat guiltily.

Likewise, you can use ain’t in thoroughly informal conversation. But you can also use it in a formal document if you do it right: as a conscious reference to a more casual style of usage.

To the shareholders of this august company, to whose munificence we are much indebted and who in turn are gazing expectantly at our forthcoming prospects, I will say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

“Ain’t is a word? Say it ain’t so!” Yes, it is so. We’ve been eating hot dogs for a long time, and we’ve been using ain’t for a much longer time. We still use it, and it still serves a very good purpose as a marker of the style of discourse. Think of it as a mason jar on the table of your text, if you want. “Country-style eatin’ tonight!”

I have a whole cookbook full of thoroughly undignified food. It’s called White Trash Cooking and it’s by Ernie Mickler. I could never serve recipes from it at a banquet. It’s mostly not health food. It’s ugly. But it’s delicious. And I have a whole set of words in my vocabulary that are not suited for essays but are excellent when tearing a strip off some good-for-nothing pervert. I have another set of words that I bring out when chatting with friends over a glass of wine.

And of course there are words I use only on formal occasions. I would be a fool to use them when talking to the butcher at the market:

I would be singularly obliged if you would bestow upon me, with proper remuneration, a dorsal section of porcine flesh appropriately cured in saline solution and thereafter subdivided transversely in parallel into segments every two millimetres.

Coming back to hot dogs, you can also serve something that is suspiciously like a hot dog at a fancier dinner if you call it knockwurst or Vienna sausage. These items are not likely any healthier for you. What goes into them is no less questionable. Likewise, there are words that have dubious pedigrees that are nonetheless commonly accepted. Look up the etymologies of the words in bold to see how questionable some of them are:

This is a nice mess you’ve gotten us into with your tawdry carousing and jaunty skirt-chasing. When you’re so weird and silly, I’m right to be surly. Now let’s have some dinner and then I’ll throw your warped ass out onto the street.

There are also words with decent pedigrees that are rejected as needlessly as some people reject perfectly good pizza. Here are three:

Hopefully, the invite will arrive alright.

If you can use them and people will understand them, they’re all words. A given one of them may be more or less appropriate to a given context. Some words are inappropriate for most contexts. Dirk uses those all the time.

Is irregardless a word? That’s a silly question. Is ketchup-flavoured ice cream food? Of course it is. Where would you serve it? Most people wouldn’t serve it anywhere. But it’s still food. There are places you can buy it. Garlic ice cream too. Chicken feet are also food. Go for dim sum. They’re a treat. People eat them and enjoy them. And people use irregardless as a word and live, as long as you don’t kill them for it.

Although irregardless is pleonastic or contradictory in formation, and synonymous with regardless and therefore not especially needed, and frankly irritating to many people, it’s still a word. When someone uses it, you hear it as a discrete lexical unit, and you know what it means. You may not like it, and that’s your right. I wouldn’t use it either unless I was trying to be funny. But it’s still a word. If you want to conjure a particularly heedless or colloquial air to your document, go ahead and use it. Just make sure that your readers know you’re doing it on purpose.

Even those terrible processed snack foods loaded with sugar are food. They’re disgusting and monstrously unhealthy, though I don’t mind having one every year or two. Can you eat it and digest it and not get sick from it? It’s food, even if it’s not to your taste.

And that weird gibberish adolescents speak? It’s all words. Can it be used in a sentence (or as an exclamation or interjection) and understood? It’s a word. Even those ravings businessmen belch into emails and think themselves geniuses for eructating are words. They may be hard to swallow, but they won’t kill you. Not quite.

Which brings me to impact. I think we can agree that impact is used as a verb in too many places. Any word can suffer from overuse. But if you’re going to say that impact can’t be a verb, you’re just going to say something that’s wrong, so don’t bother.

Listen up. Or read up. English is a very flexible language. This makes it better, not worse. If you see a contortionist in a pretzel pose, do you think she’s old and dying and degenerate, or do you think she’s youthful and highly able? The latter, of course. Why would you think differently about a language?

We can convert words from noun to verb, verb to noun, noun to adjective, and so on. If you accept I signed it or We came into contact, both of which are conversions, you can certainly accept This is the most fun thing I’ve done, and you can accept This finding will impact our sales. We have been converting words from one class to another for as long as there has been an English.

Those who object to such things are somewhat like those who are repelled at the idea of chocolate chicken. Chocolate chicken is actually very good; you use unsweetened chocolate, plus herbs. It’s quite savoury. But some people are so prejudiced they won’t even try it. Ironically, the odds are very high that they will eat commercial spaghetti or barbecue sauces that have far more sugar in them than not just the chocolate sauce for the chicken but even many dessert sauces. And people who claim to hate verbing use verbs all the time that were converted from nouns. They simply aren’t aware of it.

The words in bold, for instance, are all conversions:

Out strolling, we spotted a café; we seated ourselves and chatted as the sun smiled down on us.

Some people even claim that impactful is not a word. I can only conclude that their brains are starved from refusing to eat all sorts of nutritious food. The suffix -ful is productive. You can form a new word with it by adding it to a noun. If the result is understandable, congratulations. You have a new word.

As it happens, impactful is quite widely used and understood. You may not like it. You may prefer a lengthy phrase in its place. You may not like the taste it has. That is your choice. I would be careful of using it simply because many people dislike it. But it’s a word. It’s quite useful in some contexts, too.

Some people get quite incensed at the sight of incent. They insist that it should be give an incentive or words to that effect. Yes, of course you can use the longer phrase, just as you can serve bread in a basket, lettuce in a bowl, and beef on a plate. But you can also make a sandwich with bread, lettuce, and beef. And you can also use incent as a verb in the right context for the right audience. If you hate sandwiches, don’t eat them. But they’re still food.

Is incent a hideous backformation? It is a backformation from incentive, yes; whether it’s hideous is a matter of taste. But if you say it should be edited out, please remember that edit is a backformation from editor through just the same kind of process.

Know your audience for your writing, just as you know your dinner guests. Some of them not only like ketchup on a cheese soufflé, they insist on it. Warm it up and serve it in a nice gravy boat. Don’t scorn impactful if your audience will find it impactful. Are they paying you? Do you want them to pay you? Serve them what they will enjoy.

You undoubtedly know people who condemn a wide variety of words as “not words” or “unusable.” These are the sort of people who would come to dinner at your house and complain about your silverware placement, your choice of main dish, the proper order of serving, whether cheese should be served first or last, whether you should have served chardonnay instead of pinot noir with your turkey, et cetera. They are as dreary as those dietitians who seem to think celery is a suitable substitute for potato chips. They claim to be superior. In fact, they are merely limited and inflexible and have no idea how to enjoy what’s set before them or make use of what’s available to them.

I certainly hope you are not one of those sorts of people. If you are, smarten up. Everyone knows you don’t serve hot dogs at state banquets. You also don’t serve filet mignon to a group of six-year-olds, and you don’t open a bottle of Mouton Rothschild for people who prefer beer and are eating bratwurst and sauerkraut. Govern yourself similarly with regard to your choice of words.

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