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Home / Articles / / /  Rasmuson | “In” Words: Wincing through modern news prose

Rasmuson | “In” Words: Wincing through modern news prose

By John Rasmuson
Posted // July 9,2008 -

"Words, words, words.”

So replied Hamlet when his girlfriend’s scheming father asked what he was reading.

Like Hamlet, I read words, a practice at odds with the usual immersive approach to reading.

Here’s an example. I like to read Maureen Dowd’s column in The New York Times. She is tough on Bush, and she is funny. So I’m into one of her pieces on Obama when I come upon this sentence: “Who else could alchemize a nuanced 40-minute speech on race into a must-see YouTube viewing for 20-year-olds?” My engagement in her rhetoric is interrupted by “nuanced,” a fad adjective, and “alchemize,” a word that has the look of the perverse, noun-based constructions I find irritating. Like “scrapbooking.” I stop reading to check the dictionary. I find “alchemize” is legitimate.

“Nuanced” is a legitimate adjective, now riding a wave of popularity. I enjoy watching these word fads come and go. For one reason or another, a word or phrase becomes fashionable overnight. Some survive long enough to lose their luster—“awesome,” for instance—while others burn out like space junk in the stratosphere. My current fad-word list includes: sketchy, snarky, folks, triangulate, herding cats, cautionary tale, in harm’s way, speak truth to power, and throw (him or her) under the bus. The latter got a big boost from Obama’s race speech where he said he was not inclined to throw Rev. Jeremiah Wright under the bus.

My first notice of “in harm’s way” came during Desert Storm. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf used it in his press conferences. Reporters respected him—much as they do John McCain—and they were charmed by the lingo. That they carried it over to other stories is an indication of how charmed they were.

I’ve been surprised, frankly, how willing the media are to adopt goofy military coinages using “up.” “Ramp up,” “ratchet up,” “plus-up,” “up-armor”—to name a few. “Up-armor” came to prominence during the controversy over the thin skin of the standard-issue Humvee. It’s a silly construction that The New York Times puts in quotation marks. Writers at The Salt Lake Tribune are not so particular. I am waiting expectantly to find “tits up” in print. It’s an oft-heard military expression for things broken or unserviceable, but it’s one that demands quotation marks for political correctness. The phrase would be a boon to tabloid headline writers, as in “Bear Sterns is Tits Up!”

I’m not sure how to up-hyphen “ramp” and “ratchet.” Are they single verbs or verbs plus adverbs? It makes a difference, I think. I’m diligent about hyphenating tough-to-sort-out compound adjectives, but I’m uneasy with the likes of “no-no,” “page-turner” “cross-sell,” “no-brainer,” and “do-over.” Same with constructions ending in “wise,” as in Salt Lake Tribune columnist Vince Horiuchi’s sentence, “KTVX has been in the cellar, ratings-wise, for years.” I think it is careless writing. A no-no best avoided as a practical matter. I was disappointed that “do-over” was the best the media could muster for a solution to the disputed primaries in Florida and Michigan.

I don’t like “gone missing” or “massive heart attack,” either. The first pairs the verb “gone” with the adjective “missing.” I think it illegitimate. I’d welcome an opinion from Keith Moore, Salt Lake City’s irascible grammarian. “Massive heart attack” is a puzzling cliché. What’s the difference between a “massive” heart attack and a run-of-the-mill myocardial infarction? Tim Russert’s fatal heart attack was reported as “sudden,” not “massive.” For that matter, are there heart attacks that are not sudden?

Profanity doesn’t bother me at all. I have no qualms about using the F-word for emphasis. My wife thinks it boorish, and there are lots of people (folks!) who take her side.

Neither am I bothered by neologisms, a fancy term for new words. Snowriding, for example, was the winner of this year’s Ski Utah Ski/Snowboard Lingo Contest. “Snowriding” is a noun meant to replace yet another awkward phrase, “skiing and snowboarding.” The same contest produced “gnardonculous, an appropriate synonym for such go-to adjectives as gnarly, rad and ridiculous.” I also like “gayborhood,” a coinage of QSaltLake editor Michael Aaron, and Merriam Webster’s word of the year, “w00t.” Spelled with two zeroes, “w00t” is a gamer’s yelp of joy. We’ll see if these neologisms survive. Many fall by the wayside.

Another word of 2007 was “locavore.” It’s a clever noun for one who subsists on food produced close to home. The success of the farmers’ market in Pioneer Park is attributable to locavores. In my experience, locavores are disproportionately youthful. “Videofilia,” another new word, describes youth’s addiction to the computer and cellphone. In a tongue-in-cheek story, the Associated Press quoted a blogger who wrote, “‘w00t’ is what locavores type to each other when they finally find the locally grown buttered radishes they have been craving.”

All of this brings to mind a conversation from Alice in Wonderland. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty lectured Alice, “it means just what I want it to mean, nothing more nor less.” He’s wrong. Guys like me and Hamlet need words that draw us into coherent prose like iron filings to a magnet. What we don’t need is more words that cause us to wince.

Private Eye is on hiatus this week. Send Rasmuson feedback to


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Posted // July 15,2008 at 09:56 How about emergency appendectomy? Who schedules having their appendix removed? It hurts, you think you are dying, you go to the ER and BOOM you find yourself in surgery.


Posted // July 11,2008 at 09:20 I’m sure the editor of Q Salt Lake is bright and innovative, but the term gayborhood has been around for years. I used it in some written material at least 10 years ago, and I don’t think it was original with me at the time.nnIn Harm’s Way is the title of a John Wayne movie from 1965. It seems that it has been a military term for disposition of forces for quite awhile. nnSome of the words you refer to (herding cats) are phrases, not words.nnAs a curmudgeon, you need an editor!


Posted // July 11,2008 at 09:08 You are so right, Justin. My favorite in the morning on CNN and Headline News is Wow!nnI also cherish their love affairs with themselves. This is a CNN exclusive, our own reporter blah blah blah. Everything is exclusive.nnAlso as to subject matter, I’m finding all the cable news outlets becoming more trivial. A lot of silly information about nonsense is being categorized as news. nnAnd, the bald guy on CNN in the morning, always nodding his head and turning to look at his computer to see what is being written for him. nnUnless it is a huge breaking story, I no longer watch any tv news, except if I want to chuckle. I get mine mostly from the internet. There are so many sites. NYTimes, NPR, WPost, LATimes and, for the Cubs, Chicago Tribune, HuffingtonPost.nnGo Cubs Go!