linguistics and lexicography Love English

The vogue for banning words

©  FANCYI’m not a fan of banning words. Even moist. For one thing it’s impossible, so I should say I’m not in favour of attempts to ban words either, even when those attempts aren’t serious. It strikes me as futile and rash, a casual shot at censorship motivated by capricious dislike of a word that perhaps has become too popular for its own good.

For some institutions, like Time magazine and Lake Superior State University, banning words is an annual event; for others it’s a continuous endeavour, with new entries added weekly. LSSU’s tradition began in 1976 as a publicity stunt, and it’s still going strong. This year’s list includes some words that appeared in Word of the Year lists twelve months earlier, like selfie and twerk: popularity is both the best and worst thing that can happen to a word. But whereas Word of the Year lists are a celebration of word culture, Banned Word lists are the opposite.

I’ve written before about the problem with banning words, but the idea never really goes away; it’s topical again thanks to Time’s ill-advised decision to include feminist in its recent list of words to ban in 2015. The magazine eventually backtracked and apologised, saying it ‘meant to invite debate about some ways the word was used’, but calling for a bunch of words to be banned seldom generates much in the way of edifying debate. It’s more like: I hate X – ban it! Me too, but Y is worse. Ban Y! Ban the lot! – all a bit pitchforky and Newspeak for me.

Lists of words to ban make effective clickbait, because people are very conscious of language usage and can be wary of having their own usage policed. So they want to find out what words and phrases they should be avoiding and collectively hating. Many will join in, sounding off about words they’d like to see banned. The logic seems to be that because they simply don’t like a word or phrase, no one should ever, ever use it.

Decades ago there was a trend among language critics for keeping lists of ‘vogue words’, which they would advise us to avoid for being too fashionable. Some words given that label retreat into relative obscurity, while others become part of the common lexicon (even if, like overall, the ‘vogue’ label sticks). But apparently it’s not enough to recommend shunning an overused word or expression any more – it has to be banned. Banning words, you could say, is in vogue. Isn’t that reason enough to avoid it?

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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