Dulling the point. Six popular words that have lost their precision.
Seeking exactitude in personal, printed or electronic communication can be a lonely and thankless vigil, and those who attempt it beyond the walls of a classroom are generally ridiculed and mocked. After all, language evolves. We made it all up anyway, so why not ravage it at our discretion? Besides, who has time for punctiliousness when texting or answering an email? Who can even spell punctiliousness?
Something our shared jumpcut into digital nirvana has taught us is that one cannot fight the pervasive fog of conventional wisdom, not even with the purest of intent and the clearest of thought. So, before we slide forever over the edge and into a state of gibbering pandemonium, let us take a look at six words that may have lost their way in that haze.
Screensaver. That static image on your desktop is not really a screensaver. It’s a desktop picture (if you’re a Mac), and wallpaper (if you’re not). That picture on your phone isn’t a screensaver, either … no matter what your phone may tell you. In the old days, when computer monitors were cathodes, the serious risk of burning ghost images into the phosphor coating was averted by the creation of programs that generated continuous movement on the screen. This was absolutely necessary when any booted computer sat dormant. Impish rapscallions that they are, programmers soon interjected whimsy and frolic into the mix and the screensaver quickly became a popular diversion. Programs like After Dark offered furtive interludes of entertainment on company time long before most of us were capable of whiling away our workday online. Consequently, people continued installing screensavers, long after they were necessary. There may even be one on your computer right now. You may even use it. But that picture of Eric Cartman in drag … that’s just wallpaper.
Film, filmed, filming. Repeat after me, “COPS is filmed on location with the men and women of law enforcement.” Well … no, actually, it isn’t. Depending on the date of the episode, what you are watching was either videotaped, or recorded to a disc or a drive using ENG cameras like the Sony XDCam. In either case, no film stock or motion picture camera is involved, so no filming was done. This familiar example of verbal laziness is far from isolated. It’s not even unusual. The erroneous use of the word is pervasive, and will probably outlive the medium itself. So, before it’s too late, just remember this … you can’t film without film and you can’t tape without tape. Bad boys, bad boys.
Tarmac. Sitting on the tarmac. Waiting on the tarmac. Delayed on the tarmac. What the hell is the tarmac? Short for tarmacadam, tarmac is a tar-penetration road paving process initially devised by John Loudan McAdam in the 1820s. An improved combination of tar and aggregate, still called tarmac, was patented in 1901 and the proliferation of the automobile made it an extremely desirable road surface for many years. But the patent has not prevented the term from being incorrectly assigned to almost every other surface to subsequently come down the road, like asphalt and concrete. Tarmac was used extensively on airport runways during WWII, and the word became synonymous with landing strips. To this day, the word is applied specifically to several areas of a runway located near a terminal, even though you would be hard pressed to find this hard-pressed surface beneath the landing gear of most modern aircraft. There are a few authentic tarmac runways left, but not many. So when you think you are on the tarmac, you are probably on concrete … and the correct terminology for your location is apron or ramp.
Sauté and Grill. We’ve already lost these two. No longer specific culinary terms, they have been demoted by the general public and by Miriam-Webster to contextually generic pablum … both words as flabby and insipid as a fallen soufflé. Purists may cling to the original meaning of sauté, but for most, it is simply a way to avoid using the f-word. Frying. Frying has fallen into disfavor, and apparently giving the process a foreign name somehow makes it healthier or less … common. Sauté is a French word also used in the world of ballet. It is the past participle of sauter and literally means, “to jump.” Culinary sautéing requires nothing more than a screaming hot frypan, and constant motion -- pulling the pan back and forth in short, rapid jerks to make the food jump, or sauté. Bravo!
Grilling has become a catchall term for almost any direct heat cooking. This ignominy has escalated to the point where professional cooks will point to a griddle and call it a grill. But a grill is not a griddle. A grill is self-defined. It literally is a grill. A cooking surface made up of parallel bars; a gridiron. It’s that thing in your back yard -- and probably not the first place you would ever think of applying heat to cheese tucked between two slices of bread, in spite of the name of the sandwich this process would create.
Paranoid. This was one of the first casualties of the 1960s. Paranoid. Clinically speaking, paranoia refers to a thought process influenced by suspicion and anxiety -- specifically rooted in distrust and perceived persecution. A paranoid person exhibits an irrational fear of others because of this misguided perception. Paranoid was also the name of a 1970 Black Sabbath album, and a favorite word of the drug culture of that era, and the drug culture’s slightly more coherent best friend, the counterculture. The more the word was used, the less specific it became. Three decades later it has the distinction of being the go-to substitute for words like worried or frightened or nervous or any combination of the three. To misuse it in a sentence, “He’s all paranoid about getting a ticket.” Or, “Don’t get all paranoid about your cholesterol.” Or maybe,” She’s just paranoid about germs.”
There’s still a clinical definition for paranoia, we’ve just decided to use the inexpensive generic version.
These are simply six words of increasingly dubious meaning that make themselves obvious to people who think about this stuff. No doubt there are more examples all around us. As language evolves, specificity and precision are the inevitable casualties. Complaining too loudly about any of this would border on the pedantic, and might even approach the seventh or eighth definition of academic.