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Bromley column: Time to literally unpack tons of non-impactful words

Bromley column: Time to literally unpack tons of non-impactful words

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The other day I saw an ad soliciting “over the road” truck drivers. As opposed to what, “under the road” truck drivers?

Are the rest of us doing it wrong when we drive ON the road? Are we supposed to be using hovercrafts or flying cars? If I had a flying car, I wouldn’t need roads. Doc Brown told me so in “Back to the Future.”

Unlike Doc Brown, most English speakers don’t say precisely what they mean. As the language evolves, it grows increasingly confusing. Don’t take my word for it: The experts at Lake Superior State University have released their 43rd annual list of tired terms deserving of expulsion, and it’s full of confounding phrases that have crept into the language. I’d unpack them for you, but “unpack” is on the list.

Kudos to the wordsmiths for including “unpack” on their List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness. People trying to sound hip misuse “unpack” as a synonym for evaluating, reviewing or inventorying something. I hear talk radio hosts promising to “unpack” the latest news from Washington. (“Kellyanne Conway says her microwave is recording her every move.”) Since when did anything other than returning from a trip involve unpacking? It’s just a word people use because they think it makes them sound smart. Sort of like “impactful,” another word on Lake Superior State’s list. Many outcomes are “influential” or “stirring,” but few are literally “impactful.” That is, unless I hear you say “impactful” and toss a heavy object at your forehead, making impact.

These are just the start of trendy terms the wordsmiths would like to see yanked from the language like a rotten bicuspid. (Incidentally, Rotten Bicuspid would make a great name for a rock band.) Have you noticed that, instead of expanding on a statement, people have started to say they’ll “drill down on it?” As long as you have the drill out, please take care of that rotten bicuspid.

President Trump is responsible for two entries on the list. When the Contrarian in Chief labeled CNN “fake news,” he gave skeptics nationwide license to use that term not only to condemn media reports that are false, but to dismiss any story they disagree with. And when he accidentally typed “covfefe,” a non-word, in a Twitter post, he had followers scratching their heads. Of course, nearly everything the president does leaves us scratching our heads.

Did you know personnel departments now describe hiring, training and orientation people as “onboarding?” And that firings, resignations and retirements are called “offboarding?” I guess I’m out of the loop after working at the same place for 20 years. It’s been a long time since I onboarded, and I haven’t yet been offboarded. … I guess I won’t worry unless they threaten to waterboard me.

I appreciate Lake Superior State for ridiculing terms that muddy the waters. Take, for example, “pre-owned.” We know the car isn’t new. Let’s call it what it us, which is used. It’s not like a 2006 Acura Integra will be insulted if you call it used. Let me know if you find any “pre-owned” flying cars for sale, as I’d like to take them “over the road.”

And how about, instead of prefacing a question with “Let me ask you this …” we just ask the question? Asking permission to ask a question adds a layer of hassle no one needs. We also could save a little time by removing the “hot” from “hot water heater.” But what do I know? I don’t run the Department of Redundancy Department.

Why do we say we have “tons” of work to do? It can’t be measured on a scale. Why do we say gossips “dish” on other people? They use social media to spread dirt, not tableware.

Maybe the word nerds at Lake Superior State and I are the only ones who want to end such abuses. Ours is a tall task. One might say it’s a ton of work to drill down on, a lot to unpack. But I’d like to think our work is impactful.

Ben Bromley has been named Wisconsin’s top small-town newspaper columnist two years running. Follow him on Twitter @ben_bromley

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