Prairie Lights: Going forward on the road ahead


Going forward on the road ahead. Or something.

Lately, it seems, there is a whole lot of pivoting going on.

In earlier times, people pivoted on basketball floors, and irrigation sprinklers pivoted around a central point. That use of the word, to describe an actual physical move, still pops up from time to time.

But the new sense of “pivot” — in describing, say, how a business screws up and then adopts a new strategy — is everywhere. Ditto with politics. When a politician changes his mind, adopts a new talking point or fine-tunes his position on the issue of the moment, the action is likely to be described as a “pivot.”

I said this was a new sense of the word, but maybe I’ve only begun to notice it recently. The first article I found on it goes all the way back to 2012, and the writer referred to it as “an overused Silicon Valley buzzword.”

However “pivot” may have insinuated its way into popular usage, I’m always intrigued by the arrival of new vogue words. They are something like the flu. They spread through invisible means, upon the slightest contact, and before you know it everybody’s sick.

Vogue words and phrases tend stay in fashion until everyone is sick and tired of them, after which they slowly fade back into obscurity, or back to their original meaning.

It takes longer for some such words to wear out their welcome. I’ve been waiting for the demise of “anytime soon” for years now. For hundreds of years, it was thought to be sufficient to say simply “soon,” as in, “The flu season is not expected to peak soon.

If you add “anytime” to the sentence, it doesn’t change the meaning one iota, but nine times out of 10, I venture to say, contemporary writers would unconsciously opt for “anytime soon” — “unconsciously” being another way of saying “without thinking.”

The same is true for “at the end of the day,” which has enjoyed a very long run, for unaccountable reasons. Sometimes it’s just a longer way of saying “eventually,” and apparently is substituted because it makes the person using it sound smarter, at least in that person’s own mind.

Even worse is when it is added to a sentence where it means nothing at all. You could say, in talking about this or that problem, “Something needs to be done.” But if you wanted to sound more deliberative, I guess, or at least more wonkish, you could say, or write, “At the end of the day, something needs to be done.”

A related phrase is “going forward.” In the sentence above, it could perform the same nonfunction as “at the end of the day.” To wit, “Going forward, something needs to be done.”

There are other, more innocent vogue words, words that aren’t particularly flashy and are perfectly accurate, but in their popularity they push their synonyms almost out of existence.

Take the word “shutter,” in the sense of “close” or “shut down.” It seems like a store, or a day care, or a coal plant is never simply closed or shut down anymore. No, it is “shuttered.” Again, it’s not a bad word in and of itself. It might have a tad bit more drama than “closed down,” but it is a good, workable word.

Until you read it 20 times in one week. Then it becomes an annoyance, and you realize that, for reasons unknown and by some mysterious process, it has become a vogue word. It has worn out its welcome. But I don’t expect to see it fade away anytime soon. Going forward, it could take years.

And then there is “iconic,” which must surely be in the running for the most overworked word in the English language. If every moment is iconic, if every old building, song, bridge, automobile and shade of fingernail polish is iconic, well, then nothing is iconic, is it?

If you’ve reached this point, perhaps you are interested enough in the subject to help me figure this out:

What is it about the word “men” that makes its use as a modifier sound so wrong, in cases where “women” sounds perfectly natural? I would actually prefer the phrase “female workers” to “women workers,” but there is nothing wrong with either of them.

The same cannot be said for “men workers.” It sounds ridiculous; it demands the substitution of the word “male.” Why? I don’t have a clue. Does anyone else?

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