Writers share an intimate relationship with words. The ability to conjure up fantastical worlds and convey complex ideas depends on their ability to pick the right ones. Good writing, in a lot of ways, is determined by this skill.
And then there are words we love to loathe – from imprecise words that English language teachers have long advised writers not to use (like “good”, “bad”, “sad”) to euphuistic ones like “pusillanimous” that we hope writers we love never use. So we asked ten Indian writers about the words that, for different reasons, whose use they abhor.
Ironically, the word I hate to use in my books is “love”. I inherited my dislike for this word from a girl I was deeply in love with more than a couple of decades ago. For someone who was a complete novice in the realm of romance, I thought it was a rule to use that word in every conversation I had with her and in every note I sent her. She usually returned the note with the “offending word” circled in red, enlightening me on its emptiness and emphasising the need to improve my vocabulary if I were ever to write a book. That piece of advice remained with me, even though she slowly faded away. But the problem I face as a writer is that you can’t really avoid using that word (for instance, in this short piece I had to use it twice because I could not find an adequate alternative). So, I use it sparingly in my life and in my books. With not much pleasure.
I don’t dislike any word, but over the last few years certain words have been used out of context, reducing the unique to the commonplace. Some that raise my ire are “product” and “content” (used for artistic creations) and “narrative” (used for a stream of thought).
Oh yes, and “mellifluous” used as a vapid adjective when you can’t pinpoint how exactly a certain piece of music or its rendition struck a chord. Laziness there!
I do have several favourite words but here are a few: “penultimate”, “heft”, “serendipity”, “treacle” and “measure”.
Oh and one more favourite word is “kerfuffle”.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
In general I don’t like adverbs because I feel that there are better ways to write, such as using strong verbs. The word I dislike most and try my best not to use is “very.” It just seems like a lazy word. It’s also such a colourless word. I feel that as a writer I need to come up with a more original way of describing my subject by using images. For instance, instead of writing, “He was very frightened”, I would prefer something like, “The colour drained from his face and his eyes darted around the room as though searching for an escape.”
“Spirituality”. We don’t need this word anymore. “Psychology” is good enough. It just adds a magical layer to psychology. Its relationship with religion is no different from personal psychology to group psychology.
The word was never needed in Indic worldviews. It’s essentially a Western construct, an alternative to church, capitalism and communism. Its use today is increasingly and sadly to make oneself sound pompous, either to mean that I am not materialistic or to mean that I’m not religious. Or I am part of gurudom. And that I’m connected with something higher than the experience of regular, mundane and mediocre people. It’s now being tuned into a tool of positioning like a luxury brand.
There are some words that are like rolling stones because they are so smooth – they have no texture or grit or any capacity because they are so overused. Let me just take one terrible example, which in my times was a word that was hardly used. And when it was used, it was used to the complete sense of what its meaning was. I’m talking about the word “iconic”.
A building is coming up; a third rate multi-storey or whatever kind of building, in this wretched city of ours which we have sold down the bloody tubes. And it is invariably an “iconic” building.
In my time an icon was usually something quite sacred, but also something which had a huge history behind it. I mean, if you’re talking about the Russian depiction of the mother and sons in terms of Jesus and Mary, apart from being icons they were iconic. Or if we are talking about what the freedom struggle meant to those from my generation and even to people today; what Gandhiji’s stance on it meant. And that should be iconic. We have completely degraded it, because we do not value language. And half the times I don’t even know what an icon is.
But then again, even if there’s a word that a writer cannot stand, they can make use of it to turn things around. To make them sharper by the use of irony or to point out clichés.
There’s no such thing as individual words that I dislike/hate beyond the obvious words that embed race, caste, misogyny; they must not exist in our vocabulary or in our society.
Here are a few caste-based examples that come to mind. One is the much widely abused word “pariah” – used in national and international media, and English-language writers everywhere. It has come to be a stand-in to mean both outsider and ostracised, but the origins of the word, and the fact that it is an everyday caste-slur in Tamil – a language spoken by 70 million people – must make us sit up and avoid its usage. No one can claim to be portraying the social landscape of isolation when this word in its original context is demeaning, humiliating and encodes caste violence.
A similar example, and one to which I became thoroughly acquainted during my time in Kerala, is the use of the everyday cuss word “pandaram” to mean beggar – once again, a term of abuse. The origins of this word are interesting, and in my case, learning about them was personal because I belong to one of the various nomadic tribes that carry this name: malapandaram, andipandaram, etc. Traditionally some of these tribes were witch doctors, but also managed everyday survival through ritual beggary, and whenever you hear this slur thrown at anyone, it manages to find a target elsewhere. Blaming anyone for being poor, or being forced to resort to alms for a living is bad enough – but when it reflects, even partially, on your origins, and a roomful of friends seems absolutely unaware of how deep the shame strikes, it is painful.
Beyond these, what has started to annoy me a little these days is lazy political writing – and when I encounter it, I feel a sense of disappointment. When one is making a pamphlet or a political essay, one really has to imbibe the idea that one is seeking to persuade and convince people about. I’m not bothered with what the right does with its propaganda because they are attracting people through hate and division. But on the left, we appeal to reason, to love, to the sense of justice.
Instead of writing that reflects all of this, what has happened is a situation where we are just throwing easy formulations, calling everybody a fascist, and sometimes using the same terminology that neoliberalism/late-stage capitalism has introduced in our midst. We become clones of Corporate Talk when we want to see “growth” – without fundamentally calling out what this so-called growth is – the growth of global capitalists, the growth of the market, which is not the people’s growth. This “growth” we demand is not the “growth” we receive – what we receive is only the growth of inequality. In that sense, we must discard these capitalist clothes of language. It is not easy unless one is constantly “woke” – but it is necessary because market-language has permeated all of society, we are sodden with its ideology, and we have to make conscious efforts to break free.
There are certainly words I hate. Like “hubby” and “wifey” are truly cringeworthy. They leave an aftertaste of fake sweeteners in my mouth.
I found “genre” very pretentious but that’s because another writer sniggered when someone pronounced it as Jen-rey instead of the hoity toity French sounding pronunciation.
The expression that leaves me cold is the way “one” is used to describe something you might do or love. Example: ‘one may like living like this but one is not always able to do so’. Eh? Why not just say “I want to live like this, but...fat chance.”
A bunch of us had a laugh on Facebook using the utterly pretentious word “curated” in every context. “He curated the best sandwich.”
And by the way, suddenly “vanilla” is used to describe something bland and plain. I scoff at that whilst tucking into my favourite vanilla ice cream.
There are more knocking at my brain, but one had better get back to work, hadn’t one?
Why hate any word? What has the poor word ever done to you? I like to think of words as people. You cannot really hate a person just because of how they dress or how they look. You have to get to know them to decide whether you like them or not. Words are like that. Unless you know the context, the sentence and the way it is used, you cannot hate them.
There aren’t any specific words that I dislike. However, I find some styles of writing very annoying. There are some writers who use a very convoluted style to convey simple things –and that I dislike.
I admire simplicity in writing. Simple does not mean dumbing down. Good examples of great prose (for me) are the writings of Neil Gaiman, Michael Morpurgo, Ruskin Bond, or Kristin Hannah. Their prose seems effortless. It flows beautifully, and carries one away.
On the other hand, I find some writers showing off their sentences which are polished, sharpened and made deliberately clever. Almost every sentence seems like a gymnastic performance. It frankly tires me, and annoys me.
But if you were to force me to pick words I detest, I would say I do not like derogatory words when they are used to hurt people.
I also hate the word “hubby” and “wifey” and I would never use them. This is just a personal quirk.
I dislike “Hinglish” words. In a book I once read, there was a sentence which said something like “He was a cut-surd”. I stopped reading the book then! I mean – “cut-surd”? This is not a Quora post or a matrimonial ad or a dating site where a “cut-surd” would be okay. In a novel? No way! How much effort would it take to write, “Even though he belonged to a community of Sardars, where men generally grew their hair, he was clean shaven.” How do the editors of these books allow such things to be published?
I dislike the use of acronyms without explaining what they stand for, a besetting sin of Indian journalism, which routinely write of USPs and TRPs as if everyone should automatically understand what those terms mean.
I dislike the use of untranslated words, lines and quotes from Indian languages in English writing. There’s a habit of quoting a Hindi speaker in Romanised Hindi without bothering to explain what he meant – which seems to assume that every reader must be North Indian. Many Indians who read English have not learned Hindi (at least not well enough) and if they are reading something in English they are entitled to a translation or explanation in English.
There’s a cultural arrogance there that bothers me.
In English generally, I dislike the use of pretentious words where simple ones would do. I do use difficult words, but only when they are the most precise or apposite ones for the thought I wish to convey. Where a simple word works just as well, I prefer to use it. One writes to be understood, after all.
“Heretofore” is a word I really have issues with. I avoid using it and I don’t like seeing it. I’m also prejudiced against ugly words – like “rectum”, “sputum”, “pulchritude” or “rectitude”. My favourite words are “bone”, “creature”, “rain”. I’m not against flashy long words like “obfuscate”, “ululate” or “sussurate”, because they’re onomatopoeic (which is another lovely word). I think words should enliven rather than dispirit.