Let’s take a moment to mourn some popular words and phrases we lost in 2023. Like those year-end lists of celebrities who made their exits, I’ll stick with some of the more familiar performers. Unlike those lists, the candidates need not be dead, merely damaged.
When I say, “words and phrases we lost,” I mean those no longer available for routine use without considering the risk of sending an unintended message. Their meanings or connotations have been neutered, altered or even turned upside down through repetition or misuse.
Of course, words have been molting their meanings since hairier humans first invented them. But instant communications and incessant hyperbole now accelerate the process. Words can be born, evolve and fade in no time. Words almost never truly die, so we just call them archaic. I have a book, The Endangered English Dictionary, filled with old words on their way out. Most are unrecognizable, but some, like tapster, another word for bartender, seem serviceable today. Why aren’t we still using them?
I can’t answer that. But I will submit that the following words and phrases have now been lost to casual, unexamined discourse. From now on, use these more carefully:
Yes, I know this is Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year for 2023. The reason they cite for choosing it is why I consider it lost: “A high-volume lookup most years, authentic saw a substantial increase in 2023, driven by stories and conversations about AI, celebrity culture, identity, and social media.” (I added boldface for emphasis.)
Unlike an observable fact (That is a beautiful painting.) authenticity (It’s a Monet.) has always required a reliable authority, arbiter or standard to bestow it. But traditional lines of authority have weakened even as new technologies make near-perfect forgeries possible and empower bad actors. The best 2023 example: George Santos. Smartphones, social media apps, pack journalism and shamelessness give every liar like George Santos their own PR department and fundraising apparatus. Can we label him an authentic fraud?
The loss of this one is almost entirely on President Joe Biden. I first noticed his use of this phrase 15 years ago, when I was a media relations officer for Wake Forest University and his advance team sent me the prepared text of his 2009 commencement speech. Since then, I’ve heard him say some variant of “We stand at an inflection point in history…” repeatedly—about climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, infrastructure, democracy, Ukraine, and now Israel. Inflection inflation has cheapened the phrase. Hey, Joe, please ask your speechwriters for a new figure of speech.
Reducing this three-syllable word to the single-syllable “rizz” may count as efficiency or possibly shrinkflation. Rizz, meaning “romantic appeal” or “to charm or seduce” took off on social media this year, and Merriam-Webster made it a runner-up. Whereas the Greek-derived charisma implies a divinely conferred power of attractiveness, the hip-sounding, rizz invokes someone who has practiced and mastered their moves—for the webcam.
One caveat—the guy claiming credit for its coinage, says he didn’t condense it from charisma. Uh-oh, call the lawyers. In any case, if people continue using the snappy rizz in place of charisma, what he intended won’t matter. And the next time I start to use the word charisma, I’ll probably use the phrase a certain charm.
I am sick of this verb and its nasty noun cousin, weaponization. As our communities become saturated with guns, and political taunting turns to threats of violence, partisans on both sides increasingly accuse each other of weaponizing things that are not weapons. This metaphor makes sense in the context of a president using the IRS or FBI to harass political enemies, but you know this kind of talk has gone too far when you see headlines about Taylor Swift “weaponizing a fanbase.” Stop it.
From the unrelenting “liberty, biberty” insurance jingles to the swinging Florida book banners who named themselves Moms for Liberty, this revered word needs some time alone. Hucksters have long draped their schemes in patriotic lingo, but the politicos I see most often brandishing the word liberty these days want liberties for themselves that they would deny to others. Pure hypocrisy.
To demonstrate that these five words (a tiny sample of newly polarized ones) now carry a highly charged meaning, I’ll combine them in a hypothetical sentence:
We stand at an authentic inflection point, where charisma is being weaponized to threaten our liberty.
Doesn’t that sound exactly like our political environment today?
I wish I would hear more people say:
We face daunting and unprecedented challenges, both natural and man-made, that threaten our children and grandchildren. We need to overcome our differences and work together for our common good and theirs.
None of those words have lost their clear meaning.