Get the word out

Words are nothing. Words are everything. Both statements are accurate, depending on the circumstances. Some words can get used far too often and become annoying. For example, take the phrase “not so much.” I’m sure you’ve recently read some columnist who’s describing Person A in glowing terms and then goes on to compare Person A to Person B, by saying, “Person B, not so much.” As soon as I see that phrase I search for something else to read that doesn’t contain those all-too-easy, dare I say lazy, words: “not so much.”
But fancy words can cause just as much trouble. One of the posher words that suffers from severe overuse these days is “existential.” I ‘m not even sure that every writer who dapples that word into a sentence knows what it means. Maybe they hope that using “existential” will turn them into thoughtful commentators when just the opposite may be true. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the meaning of existential is a philosophy in which “the world has no meaning” or “each person is alone and completely responsible for his/her own actions.”
In Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll, Alice and Humpty Dumpty taught us everything we need to know about words. “When I use a word,” said Humpty Dumpty in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” Replied Humpty Dumpty, “The question is, which is to be master, that’s all.”
Some journalists have taken Humpty Dumpty literally and employ a word like “existential” not in its proper usage but instead charged with any meaning the writer deigns to give it. My morning paper has published such blithe phrases as, “In a hybrid work world, Toronto’s downtown core faces an existential crisis.” ” Or how about: “In the digital economy, accountancy faces an existential threat.” And, “Canada Post is in an existential struggle for its very survival.” When Canada Post becomes involved in an existential struggle, you know they must have run out of reasons for their continued existence.
Other writers have sung this same tune. Indeed, no less a voice than Charles Lane, deputy opinion editor and columnist at the Washington Post held forth on May 3, 2023 with a column bolstered by the headline, “Overuse of ‘existential threat’ is a crisis of existential proportions.” Just because he has obviously made no progress toward ridding the world of “existential threat” doesn’t signify I shouldn’t try. Or risk an existential existence in so doing. Whatever that might mean.

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