This article belongs to The Writing Life—The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly column.
Remember those high school days where a vital part of the revision process included adding high brow words from your thesaurus? Seems like we never quite got out of this habit. At least that's what Merriam-Webster tells us. This year, 100 new words were added, but to say they are sophisticated, is a large overstatement.
Let's begin with my least favorite word on the list: ginormous. Can anyone guess what this means? Give up? The oh so creative definition is "extremely large; humongous." Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but don't we already have a few words for this like humongous and enormous? I guess this one is a back up in case we forget the others.
Next on the list of dumb additions is hardscape. This refers to "structures (fountains, benches, gazebos) incorporated into a landscape." Did we even need a word for these things? How in the world did artists function without a specific word for these objects before? Can you imagine this meeting of perplexed creative types staring at their work, not knowing what to call or how to classify the gazebo or fountain in their paintings. This could be the exact reason Bob Ross focused on drawing "happy little trees" and lakes, minus the hardscape. If he added these extra pieces, he would have been stumped as to how to explain what he did to the lay painter.
Another word that made it into the top 100 is nocebo. Yes, folks, it sounds familiar…almost like placebo. And, even the definition is quite similar: "a harmless substance that when taken by a patient is associated with harmful effects due to negative expectations or the psychological condition of the patient." Placebo's definition is "an inert medication used for its psychological effect or for purposes of comparison in an experiment." Hmm….not that different.
What's more disturbing than some of the words that made it into the new edition is the process by which they were picked. Accord to M-W, the sole criteria for inclusion is usage—the words people use most often and how they use them. I realize that this is how most words came into our language today, but can't we be a little more discriminatory? I mean, who really uses the word ginormous? I'd like to find them, sit them down, and ask why the words we currently have weren't enough. The word itself just sounds like something one of my former middle school students would have used. And, if the only criterion is how often a word is used, look out. This means that any nonsense word can and will soon be part of our vocabulary.
I think what I will do now is keep a pen and paper handy each time I visit my nieces and nephews. We'll sit on the hardscape outside and stare at the ginormous trees, and I'll write quickly so as not to miss any of the new words that come my way.