Twisted Words

Text by Kendall Stark
Media by Lauren Cabanas

In his 2010 live stand up, Hilarious, comedian Louis C.K. makes a point to mention the way we’ve dismantled the definition of common words when he jokes, “We go right for the top shelf with our words, now. We don’t think about how we talk. We just say, 'Dude, it was amazing. It was amazing.’ Really? You were 'amazed’? You were 'amazed’? By a basket of chicken wings? Really? 'Amazing?’”

C.K.’s anecdote may seem cringe-worthy, but unfortunately, most of us can claim guilty to exaggeration. It seems as though we’ve become increasingly dumbfounded when it comes to expressing our emotions in the written and spoken word, and therefore find ourselves shooting for the sincerest of descriptive terminology. So much, that we’ve begun to alter the meanings of common phrases, forgetting that their connotations are often vastly different from what we think.

Nowadays, it almost seems as though an affliction or distaste for something often implies that we’re either “in love” with something or absolutely despise it. 

One of these misused words that circulates fairly often is “obsessed.” A few weeks ago, I heard someone say, “I’m obsessed with this shirt.” 

Personally, I find it difficult to grapple with the thought of someone being “obsessed” with a piece of clothing, especially when the definition of obsess is “to preoccupy or fill the mind of (someone) continually, intrusively, and to a troubling extent.” Don’t get me wrong, I can comprehend the feeling of elation affiliated with purchasing a brand new blouse, but this term that was once reserved for stalkers and compulsive disorders is now so effortlessly tossed around. 

Another word that seems like it’s fallen victim to misuse is “important.”

Interjecting our thoughts on trending topics via Facebook is normal. And if someone wants to repost a BuzzFeed article entitled “27 Times Shia LaBeouf Inspired Us All,” and call it “important,” for the sake of humor, that’s fine, too. But it is interesting, when we revisit the definition of the word important, and read that its meaning is “[something] of great significance or value; likely to have a profound effect on success, survival, or well-being.”

Just as we’re shifting the way words are used and perceived, the way we express ourselves is changing, and rapidly. Last year, Oxford Dictionaries awarded their annual word of the year not to an actual word, but to an emoji, the one whose verbal description is “face with tears of joy.” 

In contrast, and to the advantage of word-advocates everywhere, the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s choice for its 2015 word of the year was the suffix “-ism” due to a high volume and increased lookups for seven words that make use of it: socialism, fascism, racism, feminism, communism, capitalism, and terrorism.

The implications of these words are heavy, and their broad definitions only foster a larger conversation on international issues and trends. For example, many Americans might associate socialism with communism, failing to understand the varying subsets of the ideology. 

So before we exaggerate - before we judge, and before we label - I do think it’s particularly important to recognize and understand the meanings of the words that escape us.