Grammar The Rise and Fall of Vogue Words |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

The Rise and Fall of Vogue Words

In the last two weeks, on various radio and television programs, I have heard the word granular used no less than five times, in sentences like “The commission was hoping for a granular analysis of the problem.”

The word got my attention, but I didn’t know what it was supposed to mean. All I knew was that the pundits who said “granular” were not talking about actual granules or particles or grainy surfaces.

I looked up granular on the regularly updated online American Heritage dictionary, and found this: “Having a high level of detail, as in a set of data: a more granular report that shows daily rather than weekly sales figures.”

Are we witnessing the birth of a new fad word? We’ll see if granular catches on—it’s off to a pretty good start.

Language watchers have taken notice. One of them groused on the internet: “What is wrong with using words we already have available, like specific versus general and detailed versus summary? There is no good reason to posit another meaning of ‘granular’ simply in order to sound more attuned to the latest fad in management … This impoverishes the language.”

In 1926, the linguist Henry Fowler coined vogue word to describe a word that emerges “from obscurity” to become inexplicably popular. “It is often, but not necessarily, one that by no means explains itself to the average man, who has to find out its meaning as best he can.” Fowler added, “Ready acceptance of vogue words seems to some people the sign of an alert mind; to others it stands for the herd instinct and lack of individuality.”

Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage has a substantial list of vogue words and phrases that includes downsize, empower, proactivesynergy, user-friendly, at the end of the day, and worst-case scenario. These have all made the transition from fresh and edgy to stale and tedious. Today’s catchiest vogue words and phrases will be tomorrow’s clichés. The rest of them just wear out and vanish after a period of manic overuse by the public.

Many vogue words are lifted from science, technology, and academia. People use these imposing expressions with little or no understanding of their meanings. Why say it raises the question when saying it begs the question sounds smarter? But to beg the question means something else entirely: it is a scholarly term for reaching unwarranted conclusions.

And why say limits or boundaries when you can wow ’em with parameters, which made a splashy debut as a vogue word a few decades ago. Soon after the word took off, the language scholar Theodore Bernstein wrote, “Parameter is a mathematical term … that many people are using—correction: misusing—to sound technical and impressive.”

Finally, let’s not overlook the commercial potential of trendy language. If big corporations co-opt vogue words to move products, that’s just savvy marketing. A fast-food chain now offers an Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich. At first glance it looks like any other assembly-line sandwich, but I know it’s artisan—that means good, right?—because it says so in big capital letters right there on the cardboard packaging.

—Tom Stern

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

17 responses to “The Rise and Fall of Vogue Words”

  1. Debra H says:

    Ironically, in the April 19 essay about “vogue words,” it appears the writer is adopting “vogue grammar” by writing, “I have heard the word granular used no less than five times…” Isn’t the writer subscribing to the grammatically incorrect, but currently acceptable (in some circles), use of “less” rather than “fewer”? What is the justification for accepting the use of “less than” for a numbered quantity and at the same time rejecting the use of a vogue word like “granular”? The writer makes the argument that several acceptable alternatives to “granular” already exist; a grammatically correct rule for the use of “fewer” also already exists. In fact, expanding the definitions of words can enrich our language, but rewriting the rules of grammar can weaken it, especially when bending those rules is done simply to conform to the conversational style of the day. “That’s just how people talk” seems to me a lazy argument. Couldn’t the Grammarbook newsletter be used to encourage – and model – improved writing through proper grammar?

    • As noted in our response of April 22, 2016, to Gina L., no less than is recognized by some authorities as an idiom. Merriam-Webster online gives the example “She has had no less than a dozen job offers” as acceptable usage.

  2. Gina L. says:

    There is an error in the newsletter in this sentence: In the last two weeks, on various radio and television programs, I have heard the word granular used no less than five times, in sentences like “The commission was hoping for a granular analysis of the problem.”

    The error: using “less” when “fewer” is correct.

    • If the word no were not involved, you would have a good argument. But the phrase no less than is a special case when it comes to less vs. fewer. The Merriam-Webster dictionary, for one, recognizes no less than as an idiom: “NO LESS THAN: at least —used to suggest that a number or amount is surprisingly large …

  3. Lee M. says:

    One that annoys me is “curate,” used frequently by Starbucks, as in “a new curated collection of snack foods.”

    “To curate” means “to act as a curator.” A curator is “A person who manages, administers or organizes a collection, either independently or employed by a museum, library, archive or zoo.”

    Oh, come on! “curated snack foods”? Are they from a museum or from a zoo? Either way, they would be too offbeat for my tastes.

    • That’s a good one! Just the right amount of pretense.

    • Jay Williams says:

      As a museum curator, I can tell you that the term “curate” (used as a verb) came into use, improperly, about thirty years ago. Properly, curators don’t “curate.” They organize, assess, and appreciate a cultural product, usually art objects. Originally curators cared for collections of art objects, as zookeepers care for animals.

  4. Robert M. says:

    A similar term that came in quickly is “silo.” It may be on the way out.

  5. Timothy R. says:

    I have been a regular reader of this newsletter for several years and it has made me a more careful writer. Thank you for what you do for us who are not copy editors or other variety of professional word nerds.

    Your article on vogue words prompted me to write. Perhaps it is years in business and the odd words that are heard in offices, terms such as whiteboarding, to describe expressing an idea on a dry erase marker board in front of an audience that have conditioned me to overlook what you observe. The term granular is a term I am sure I have used for at least 15 years and I don’t recall ever receiving a curious glance from a colleague suggesting I had used a term that was foreign. I cannot even recall the first time I heard it used but the it seems to me a brilliant use of language to describe taking vast amounts of data and reducing it to individual grains to expose the nuance. When dealing with the complexities of modern data, this word seems perfect to me.

    I appreciate your newsletter but this time I have to respectfully disagree with your assessment. Keep up the good work and I will continue to follow and learn from you.

    • Tom was noting a suspiciously sudden outbreak of this word’s usage, following the pattern of other vogue words. You’ll note that Tom has no beef with the word itself, just its unexpected appearance within two weeks on five unrelated shows.

      Thank you for being a loyal subscriber, and thank you for writing.

  6. Allan G. says:

    The word I’m sick of hearing is “amazing”. Any activity or special behavior seems to get this label. It is a standard description of people on television shows. Other adjectives seem to have disappeared from the language.

  7. J. S. says:

    I would like to thank you for your articles. They are a joy for me to read.
    I wonder if you could help with a word I am very confused about. It is the word ‘raft’. I hear it regularly in the news , used by reporters and politicians mostly. ” The council suggested a ‘ raft ‘ of ideas “..or ” there is a raft of choices that have to be made “..etc.
    While I am about it I may as well ask for another also……the expression…” There is ( sic ) a number of refugees that were drowned ” or, ” There were a number of people at the meeting “…and so on. I am never sure what the term ‘ number ‘ means.

    • Our American Heritage dictionary provides this additional definition of “raft”: “Informal. A great number, amount, or collection: asked a raft of questions.”

      Regarding number, we would like to refer you to our blog post The Number vs. A Number. We first published that one in a 2010 newsletter.

      Thank you for the kind words; we appreciate hearing that you enjoy our articles.

  8. Becky Doig says:

    Not sure this one qualifies as a vogue word, but I have been puzzled by the use of “grow” in recent years in the context of “The politician said he would do whatever it would take to grow the economy.” Is this correct use?

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