Strike up a conversation with an Irish person about the words they hate, says author, columnist and communications expert Terry Prone, and you’re liable to be nattering for hours. So when her publisher — “who demands a book from me every 18 months” — knocked once again on her door, Prone decided to take a look at words.
All kinds of words; new, sloppily-used, misunderstood, words crucial to the art of pompous selfelevation, words used to describe new trends, and words which once and for all highlight the ever-widening gap between the generations. A huge fan of American writer and soldier Ambrose Bierce, whose pithy definitions formed the basis of a satirical newspaper series, Prone cast her net far and wide, and came up with a huge selection of misused and abused words and phrases.
Sometimes it’s sloppiness, she says, on other occasions it’s simply a case of sheer ignorance. Take ‘surreal’ for example: “People use ‘surreal’ meaning unreal,” she complains. “This word is being used in the news the whole time — when, for example, people are talking about an explosion being surreal what they really mean is it felt unreal!” Or ‘spindoctor’: “I’ve given up shouting at people for calling me a spin doctor because they just don’t know what it means.
“A spin doctor actually speaks for their candidate and does active onscreen promotion for their politician. “We don’t have that in Ireland at all — you don’t have PR people here coming out and talking about their politicians!”
We also communicate so much electronically now that new acronyms — TATT (Tired All The Time) are developing faster than ever before, says Prone who warns of the dangers inherent in using ones you don’t understand. Such as LOL (Laughing Out Loud).
David Cameron, when leader of the opposition raised eyebrows with his tendency to use LOL at the end of what were often very serious texts — because he thought it meant Lots Of Love.
And let’s not forget the selfimportant, who have turned the elevation of who they are and what they do into an art: ‘Third-Partying’ where a politician refers to himself or herself in the third person. Or the political adviser who drones that it’s his or her job to speak ‘truth to power’.
“That’s just being pompous!” Prone exclaims, adding that another favourite was an advertisement featuring a man who ran a sweet factory, who said that mobile technology was “mission-critical” to the company: “We think he means that staying in touch with each other is good when it comes to making the product. And that he doesn’t mean to sound silly.” There are the phrases which are being used completely out of context — such a one, she says is ‘renaissance man’.
“It’s supposed to mean a living, walking genius but in fact often refers to an ordinary person who can, for example, walk and chew gum.” Or the phrases which refer to new phenomena — such as ‘helpless parents’. This phrase, says Prone, refers to parents who can “now pay experts to elevate their incapacity to say ‘no’ into a national syndrome.” These, she says, are parents who are “convinced their toddlers will hate them if they remove their soother/doody, and who can “consult child behaviour experts on how to undertake this significant challenge.
“Helpless parents, when they have a baby, regard the possibility of said baby weeping as a personal indictment. They therefore represent a substantial market for products like Calpol.” Then there are the buzzwords and phrases — “I’m going to ‘Taylor Swift the s*** out of my trip to Ibiza’. This, explains Prone, simply means that you will take lots of photographs of your holiday.
Or in other words, ‘hyper-document your amazing life on social media’. Which means taking many shots of you and your besties simultaneously jumping for joy in your swimsuits, which are then uploaded to ensure the world sees your joy. And then there’s ‘On Fleek’ — meaning perfect.
You might, observes Prone, “comment on a friend’s eyebrows – that they are ‘on fleek’ – assuming of course, she adds acidly, that neither you nor your friend has a life.” The big learning here, she explains, is that this is the kind of word that you don’t use if you’re a parent or are over the age of 30.
“Don’t think you’ll get ‘on-trend’ by using such words, she cautions — “because if it’s in a book it’s no longer on-trend.” In fact, says Prone, we now have such an unprecedented division between the generations in the kind of language they use that she declares: “If you give me a paragraph on any topic I can tell you the age of the person writing it. I’m not sure that was ever the case before.”
Baa Baa Pink Sheep, she says, is for the gritted teeth brigade: “It’s for people who love words and go ‘aaaghh’ over things we constantly hear. Some of them will make people laugh, some will explain things and some of them are just in there for fun and interest!”