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September 12th, 2007

Tragedy / more ban-worthy words and phrases

by Barbara Wallraff

P.J. Maitland, of Kingston, Ontario, writes: “I have a question about ‘tragedy.’ It has become a synonym for ‘lethal accident,’ as in ‘Two people died in a highway tragedy last night.’ If the word ‘accident’ is mentioned, it usually has ‘tragic’ in front of it. Is this usage a cliché or something else?”

Dear P.J.: You’re not the first person to have written me disapprovingly about the way the media uses “tragedy,” and I’m puzzled. Don’t you find the accidental loss of human life tragic? It’s true that originally a “tragedy” was a kind of drama or literary work, but the word has also long been used to refer to “a disastrous event: calamity,” as Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines it. The death of a stranger may not be a calamity to you or me, but no doubt it’s assumed that we will empathize with the person’s relatives and friends.

As for “tragic accident,” consider, for example, the headline “Man killed in tragic accident.” The alternative phrasing “Man killed in fatal accident” is no good, because it’s redundant. And “Man killed in accident” seems unfeeling, inasmuch as an “accident” can be something as minor as spilled coffee or a scraped fender. So no, I think “tragic accident” is a useful phrase, not a cliché.

Speaking of clichés, a few weeks ago I published a list of words and phrases that a reader who works in corporate communications bans his staff from using. I chimed in with a few more expressions that I think deserve to be banned and asked if anyone could come up with anything simultaneously more pretentious, obscure and stale than “Not to put too fine a point on it.”

Here are some of the better suggestions, in no particular order. If you submitted any of them, please forgive me for not crediting you by name, but a number of these were suggested by more than one person, and the credits could get long.

at this point in time
touch base
parameters (especially bad if the person using it thinks it’s a synonym for “perimeter”)
the long and the short of it
rush to judgment
get a handle on
he/she has a full plate
push the envelope

In addition, a reader who I doubt would want to be publicly identified by name contributed a funny story: “The words and phrases mentioned were among the many we learned in management-training and human-resources classes at a major company. We would randomly put these and many more learned in these classes into squares as on a bingo card. At a meeting we would then X out those used, and when a line or diagonal was filled, we would jump up and shout ‘Bull****!’ (If only we could.) After the meeting we would compare cards, with the winner getting lunch paid by the others.”

Now, there’s a strategy: If you can’t beat them, make fun of them. The long and the short of it is, at this point in time we all need to push the envelope if we’re going to expand the parameters of our vocabulary and get a handle on proactive language. And I mean that — even if there’s no reason to expect that anyone will understand what I just said.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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