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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.”
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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
Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage has a substantial list of vogue words and phrases that includes downsize, empower, proactive, synergy, 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.
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