Tired Words

The Unbulletined Board. In anticipation of a new semester. Let's Master something.
The Unbulletined Board. In anticipation of a new semester. Let’s Master something.

It’s already like 10 days into lent; I can’t remember how many years it’s been since made a decision and truly gave up something for 40 days.

Being in grad school and teaching and coffee-ing simultaneously for the past month has meant that I’ve been doing more writing than normal. Because I’m writing so much, I’m finding that I hear echoes of myself from one piece to the next, and I’m getting the feeling that I may be dangerously close to repeating something I’ve already said.

In my class on Chaucer last week (where we’re reading Canterbury Tales in Middle English) the professor talked about ways in which we could still identify with the text, even though it was written almost 500 years ago. Then he stopped himself mid sentence and said, “Identify–I don’t really know what that word means. It seems to be a piece of jargon we use to get through tricky patches of conversation.”

I certainly identified with his sentiment; sometimes I catch myself mid sentence and find I don’t have any good reason to be using the words I’m using. They’re just the low-hanging fruit I’ve gotten too used to grabbing.

Later in the class the professor had us note Chaucer’s particular turns of phrase, one describing a pilgrim who had “disappeared into logic” and another who “lisped his wantonness.” He qualified Chaucer’s genius as a storyteller by saying that bad writers try to force things, resulting in a text that’s all twisted and doesn’t sit right. He professed, “Good writers, on the other hand, don’t always use odd metaphors or words, but they use the right odd metaphor and the right odd word at exactly the right time. And when you read it you go, ‘Yes! That’s it! It couldn’t be anything else.'”

Every single word matters whenever you write anything, and in the spirit of Chaucer and Lent (which are maybe not quite the correct two spirits to put together but oh well), I’m identifying a list of words that I love but use way too much, and therefore need to retire from all of my writing—academic, educational, and industrial—for at least the next 30 days.

  • Absorb
  • Actually
  • Confluence/conflate
  • Connectivity
  • Contort/ed
  • Convoluted
  • Delineate
  • Drench/ed
  • Ephemeral
  • Evolution
  • Explore
  • Extensive
  • Flutter
  • Identify
  • Innovate
  • Intertwined
  • Literally
  • Meaningful
  • Nebulous
  • Possibility
  • Pursuit/pursue
  • Raw
  • Reciprocal
  • Revival
  • Sprawling
  • Trace
  • Vast
  • Visceral

I am challenging myself to not use these words at all in lesson plans, curriculum design, class journals and papers, emails, articles, weird half-formed fiction/poetry that I write on my phone on long train rides, or even here in this blog.

If graduate courses are reminding me of anything it’s that the English language is not (and has never been) limited.

The Specialty Coffee Association of America lists hundreds of words to talk about coffee, and the coffee industry is forever renaming parts of itself with newly selected or wholly invented words, but there is also quite a bit of blind repetition where I don’t think writers or readers really feel what is being talked about; both parties are sort of mildly nodding and saying the same thing that’s been said without really pausing for that moment of “That’s it! It couldn’t be anything else.”

The goal of becoming a “master” of English Literature seems to be to do as Chaucer does and be agile in dusting off the most unexpected yet suited word to insert at just the right beat. In hopes of getting closer to some backshelf words, I’m giving the worn ones a time out. (Like that scene in

Even though I’ve been writing about the same general topics for several years each, there is always more to learn and new puzzles to solve. Mastering something means knowing it inside and out; understanding all the ways to talk about it–not just the most common ones.

Teaching and coffee might be the bold headings of my professional life, but I’m trying new things within both spacious genres. In coffee I’ll soon be unveiling new collaborations (which sounds vague but I promise will be very concrete and fully explained in six months), and in teaching I’m abandoning the common core and looking for ways to help students feel more human (read full post on Columbia University’s OHMA blog) .

I don’t think the next month will be so much about giving something up as it will be about refusing to stay in the cradle of a comfortable linguistic rut and reminding myself to reach for language untried.

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