Language update is overdue
Arizona Republic
Jul. 2, 2006

The difference between the almost right word and the right word," wrote Mark Twain, "is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

He might agree that our language needs an update, since the right words seem as trite as a land-line phone. In Arizona, we worry about teaching English to non-English speakers. We should spend equal time renewing our own knowledge.

That in mind, I suggest changes to the dictionary in several categories.
First is "The Overused Word." Let's start with "sexy." I can't think of a word that gets a more vigorous workout. You see, the lovely woman leafing through a novel at the bookstore is sexy. Jenna Jameson, on the other hand, is just . . . sex.

Another example is "genius." There are many extremely smart people in their fields, but in the world there are exactly three geniuses: Ray Charles (yes, still), Stephen Hawking and the founder of Starbucks. That's it. And there's no such thing as a political genius. Politicians cannot be genius, only clever.

Also, the media should consider what is truly "breaking news." A low-speed chase through suburban Toledo doesn't qualify. Headlines like "President eats monkey" or "Jesus returns" are breaking news.

But no other word deserves a break more than "miracle." For God's sake, could we please give this word a rest?

Randal McCloy is the man rescued in January from the Sago Mine in West Virginia. Pulling him from that mine was not a miracle. Hundreds of people dug through mud and rocks for days to find him; not miraculous, just astounding human effort.

Also, as a friend of mine noted, if McCloy's rescue was a miracle, what happened to his 11 co-workers who died? Bad luck?

The second category is "The Evolved Word."

As an example, "conservative" has wrongly become "nutbag." Despite the fact that most conservatives simply don't want to spend more than necessary, like to be left alone and want to make their own choices, the actual word has changed.

In Arizona, Libertarians are Conservatives, Conservatives are Moderates and Moderates are Liberals. Liberals are just endangered.

Then we have "eccentric." It used to mean, according to Webster's, "a bizarre person." Now it means "crazy with money."

"Religious" has also evolved into an unrecognizable word. I used to think my mother was religious: She prays often, goes to church every week and thanks God for every blessing she has received. Apparently, that doesn't count any longer.

To be religious these days, you must be way out there. Suicide bombers are now religious. Hollywood celebrities go through religions like shoes ("celebrity" has also morphed, but more on that later). People think Pat Robertson is a religious leader. I think he's eccentric.

Of particular interest are words that undergo rapid evolution, like the bacteria scientists will artificially reproduce 13 billion times in, say, seven minutes. One such word is "blogger," which used to be an interesting, informed, independent online writer. Now a blogger is anyone with a Web site and an opinion.

"Singer" used to mean Sinatra; now it means Ashlee Simpson. "Cancer" was a deadly disease; now it's a selfish pro athlete. "Author" was Ayn Rand; now she's Ann Coulter.

The last category is "The Misused Word," which could include any of the above examples. But some words deserve their own group.

"Art" is one of them. Though the word has many definitions, I'll confine my analysis to visual arts such as painting or sculpture. Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and art is free expression.

But there are pieces in galleries, and more than a few works of taxpayer-funded public art, that stretch the word beyond common sense. So I propose a new definition: Art is anything I can't do myself.

In the Hollywood sense, of course, "celebrity" has forever been thrust upon us. But when someone with no talent or accomplishments becomes a celebrity simply by exposing every . . . single . . . bonehead . . . impulse on national reality television, its misuse is to the point of ridiculous.

So, to update: Celebrity requires actually doing something. Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon. That's a celebrity.

Come to think of it, Mark Twain would still be a celebrity and an author.
Maybe even eccentric. He might even try for sexy, but that would take a miracle.