The Queen’s English

Old words with new meanings have a way of creeping into our consciousness.Some years ago when I heard a presidential assistant say of a cabinet appointee whose checkered past had become an embarrassment to the President, “We just didn’t vet him sufficiently,” I only vaguely understood.Vet was not a word unknown to me, but I had never heard it used in this sense before.In context I more or less inferred what he meant.

Before long, vetting was the Order-of-the-Day! Dim-witted politicians, who never met a buzzword they didn’t embrace thoughtlessly, pounded the word into the turf.It may not yet have become a tired cliché, but it surely seems to be headed that way.Too bad, because it is an intriguing use.

Those old enough to remember the Watergate Congressional hearings may remember how John Dean and others beat to death the phrase “point in time” (when they might simply have said “at that point” or “at that time”).Then there’s the insufferable suffix gate which has appended itself to every scandal of the last 40 years (Blagogate [2008], Spygate [’07], Nannygate [’06], Rathergate [’04], Whitewatergate [’95], Travelgate [’93], Contragate [’87]the list is endless).

The objection (you’ve heard this lament here before) is that the use of tired clichés reflects a kind of mental sloth on the part of the speaker who may have the notion that by using such terms, he or she is demonstrating a kind of wit or hipness.Quite the opposite.

Here for your consideration is a sampling of the current crop of not-so-new new words:

Vet.Formerly amilitary veteran or veterinarian. Now, it describes a process of research to evaluate in depth a person or idea for possible approval (such as a Supreme Court or presidential cabinet appointee; plenty of vetting through the past December and January!).

Props.It used to describe stage or movie objects (not including painted scenery or costumes, curiously).Now used to praise or to give respect or credit (“Props to him on a job well done!”).

Metric.Old use: a system of measurement (the metric system), used more by Europeans than Americans.Current use: a standard created by organizations to judge an employee’s talent and performance.

Venue.Used almost exclusively by lawyers until perhaps ten or 15 years ago, meaning a place where a legal cause of action arose or from which a jury was chosen.Now it describes almost any place, particularly halls for any of the performing arts.

Ramp-Up.Formerly an inclined plane.Now used to designate a build-up in force by organizations such as corporations, sports teams, or military units in preparation for a function or operation.

Toxic.Traditionally describes something containing poisonous material, possibly causing death or debilitation.Used now to describe bank loans which were badly made and are likely to go into default.

Transparent.Formerly used to describe a material which is fine or sheer enough to seen through.Currently used to describe any governmental or corporate function which is characterized by visibility or accessibility of information.

None of these is being misused per se, and perhaps not all are even clichés (yet).But the air is peppered with them.Watch for them, and use them at your peril!

— Ken Butera

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