The Right Word

Last year as the holidays loomed, the language geek in me got an early gift, when the Washington Post finally allowed using “they” as a singular pronoun, and then a national linguists’ association named the singular “they” its Word of the Year. Another thrilling season for language nerds may be upon us, because the stylebook editors are at it again.

Specifically, the Associated Press, the New York Times, and others are updating their guidelines for using the term “alt-right.” Though it sounds like a Millennium-era AOL internet forum, “alt-right” has only been around since 2008 or 2010, depending on who you ask. It was coined by people who wanted a new name for their political movement, one setting them apart from mainstream American conservatism. It’s become controversial, as critics charge that “alt-right” is popular with white supremacist groups who use it to obscure their beliefs.

Writers and editors are weighing in, with a flurry of stylebook updates. From the AP: “Avoid using the term generically and without definition, because it is not well known and may exist primarily as a public-relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear.” The Times tells its writers, “Let’s avoid using ‘alt-right’ … without an explanation. Any description can touch on key elements, based on our own reporting.” The British newspaper The Guardian also suggests following the name with a description, and adds, “such descriptions should be evidence based.”

And that’s what I’m loving about this discussion. For the most part, publications aren’t ordering writers to use “alt-right,” nor are they banning it. They’re saying, resist reaching for the broadest term, consider what you’re actually describing, and then choose the best, right word for it. They’re asking us to think.

In this era of marketing awareness and personal branding and social-media shorthand, too often, writers are issued a term and expected to swallow it whole. Don’t use “customers,” they’re “clients.” It’s not a “skill,” it’s a “core competency.” Once, I waged a protracted battle with a copy editor over his insistence that I use “plastic foam” instead of “Styrofoam.” (I still maintain that most readers see “plastic foam” and think of the fake snow you wrap around miniature Christmas villages.)

These words and phrases — focus-group-tested and brand-approved — aren’t inherently bad. After all, they spawned “fahrvergnügen” and “manscaping.” They’re part of the ever-evolving symphony of our language.

But word choice is too important to surrender to someone else. It shouldn’t take a controversy to remember that when someone chooses a word for us, it’s because it suits them. That doesn’t mean it suits you. As writers, we should always remember that the best, right word is the one you choose yourself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.