What happened to those beautiful words? I miss them. I mourn them. They are still with us, to be certain, but their meaning has been cheapened, thinned, eviscerated. There is a host of such words that once lent a richness to our language.
Iconic. I no longer know of almost anything that is not iconic. It is a beautiful adjective for a song, idea, or image so unusual that it achieves a certain immortality. The photo of American soldiers hoisting the flag at Iwo Jima is iconic. But now, everything pops up as iconic, and if everything is iconic, nothing is iconic. The opposite of rare, “iconic” has lost its power.
Or take “community.” Long ago, a community was an intimate space. It was rare because it is hard to build a real community, and it is joyous when one is part of a real community. But today? We have the “legal community,” as if the interests, tastes or purposes of all lawyers, judges, law schools and courts were identical. We have the “medical community.”
Who? What? Where? The “medical community” is too big and diverse to signify anything meaningful. We even have the “world community.” Which means: Real community has become so elusive that we grasp at straws, hoping that by invoking the word “community” we automatically belong to one.
Another beautiful word that has lost its allure: “conversation.” Long ago, a conversation was a treasured opportunity, a personal exchange of ideas or a chance to clear the air. As the word thinned, it devolved into a political debate or a polite way of saying to a large group of citizens that they are wrong for not seeing a certain policy the same way as the person who pushes his point by saying, “the community needs to have a conversation about this.”
“Friend.” We have hundreds or thousands of friends now, but no one to talk to. The more friends we have, the lonelier we get, because it is impossible to have real friends in great number. It takes deep communication, shared experiences and not just clicking “add a friend” to develop a real friendship. “Friend” is another one of those important, yet devitalized, words.
Here’s my favorite: “folks.” “People” do not exist anymore, only “folks” do. Here again, folks had a specific connotation that has been generalized into oblivion. “Folks” were an informal, unpretentious, down-to-earth, easy-to-get-on with grouping. But ” has now come to connote “people,” that is, anyone. As if anyone or any grouping of any size consists of people with whom I can expect an easygoing, undemanding relationship. Even the entire citizenry is referred to as “folks.” Another valuable distinction has gone by the wayside.
The cousins of “iconic” are “state-of-the-art” and “cutting edge.”
Taken denotatively, “state-of-the-art” is a wonderful new idea, a contraption or a project that promises enlightenment or unique benefits. But today, is not everything “state-of-the-art”?
Same with “cutting edge.” I once held a press release in which “cutting edge” appeared so many times that I wondered whether I might cut myself.
“Transformative.” Another word full of meaning has been devitalized.
If all the things I am told are “transformative” worked their magic on me, I would not be recognizable. Needless to say, very little is truly transformative.
These are more words that have lost their power or meaning from overuse or trivialization: oxymoron, elucidate, partner, existential, awesome, algorithm, smart.
There is a common theme running through all these words. They have been, yes, transformed from specific, identifiable, evocative or shimmering words into insubstantial generalities. Their new connotations bespeak an emptiness in our culture, no less strong than the accompanying thirst for genuine connection.
The linguistic penchant for turning rich words with specific referents into ethereal or universal realities shows how disconnected our lives have become.
Copyright © 2020 by the Intermountain Jewish News