Over the years while writing, or more often reading, I’ve run across a select group of words that I just don’t care for. For the most part it’s nothing I have personal against the words. They never stole my woman or cheated me at cards or lured me into a van with candy as a boy. No, it’s more the manner in which they were foisted on me that grinds my gears.
There are things in this world that I absolutely hate, but the words naming them aren’t necessarily words I can’t tolerate. Panda is a fine example of this. As some of you may know, I hate pandas with all the passion normally reserved by the American male for the NFL, Coors Light, and Las Vegas. I abhor pandas. I can’t stand them. Their entire existence and society’s insistence that it continues despite any bit of interest in it displayed by the fluffy ignoramuses boggles my mind. But the word panda itself isn’t verboten with me. Hell, I liked Kung Fu Panda quite a bit.
No, this is a special category, perhaps more reserved for writers than for conversationalists in my company. Were someone to roll one of these bad turns of word in my presence, I don’t think I’d stop the proceedings cold to cross the room and kick the letters back down their throat. I’m just not that kind of guy. But when I read these words, well, it pounds the timpani of my last nerve.
The first and most subtle case of this is the word lichen. Lichen, as per dictionary.com, is “any complex organism of the group Lichenes, composed of a fungus in symbiotic union with an alga and having a greenish, gray, yellow, brown, or blackish thallus that grows in leaflike, crustlike, or branching forms on rocks, trees, etc.” It also has the ability to destroy whatever I’m reading, rendering it in my mind simply “Lichen material.”
It tends to primarily appear in nature poetry, haiku, and Walden, or things like that. I can’t even accurately explain why my reaction to lichen is so strong. I think I must have been a boulder in a previous life. (If you’re at all familiar with my personal ambition and drive, this should seem appropriate) Still, if you’re spouting lichen and I’m in earshot, I’m tuning you out. I can’t help it.
Worse still is the use of the word liquid. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Liquid? What’s wrong with liquid? That’s perfectly reasonable! This guy is just looking for words to have a beef with! What a dick!” Well, you’re wrong. There is a writer-ly use of the word that drives me up the goddamn wall. Here’s an example, culled from many years of reading First Novel contest entries:
“Jack poured himself a stiff glass of bourbon, the dark liquid cascading over the ice cubes in a rush.”
Besides being a lousy sentence, it also uses liquid in my least favorite way. If you are trying to describe any liquid, the worst way to do it is with the word liquid. I’m sorry, that’s true. Is it liquor? Call it liquor. Is it water? Call it water. Is it orange juice? Don’t call it “acidic liquid!” For God’s sake, it just sounds like you are trying to be overly creative without any decent ideas how to do that. Just cut to the damn chase. We all know these things are liquids. I don’t need it beaten over my head. When I describe my foot, I don’t call it my “meat peddle.” You know what I’m talking about! And I know what you’re talking about! Christ!
In fact, the only time you should use liquid is if you don’t know what is being presented. “A mysterious red liquid oozed from the walls, scaring the pets.” “He awoke with his gums awash in a brackish liquid, the origin of which he could only guess.” “The Virgin Mary statue seeped a corrosive liquid that threatened to destroy the planet.” See? That’s the time for liquid, and virtually no other, as far as I’m concerned.
And in the same vein, holding the distinction of being the worst writer-ly word one can use, as far as I’m feeling about it right this instant, the grande dame of shitty word choices – macadam. Oh my sweet fancy Lord, macadam! When is there ever a good time to describe a road, a street, or any paved surface as macadam? Never! That’s when! You use the word macadam, you might as well follow it up with “brought to you by the mind of the overworked author, who wanted to spice up the proceedings by utilizing this impressive sounding, utterly pointless word.”
If you are describing something as macadam, think to yourself, “Wouldn’t I just be better off saying road? Or pavement?” I can guarantee you that you are. Macadam immediately removes me from whatever I’m reading, entirely. I can no longer focus on story, setting, character, or the gravelly paved surface when I read the word macadam. Nothing can keep me with the narrative at that point. I don’t care if nuns are fellating giraffes on the macadam, I can’t read another word. I toss aside whatever piece of detritus it happens to be and I move on to something more worthwhile.
This applies even if you happened to be writing a biography of John L. McAdam, after whom this phrase of schlock was christened many years back. Even then, just say he created a method of paving roads. Don’t say he macadamized anything. That’s horrible.
For the record, going forward, if you absolutely hate a word, for reasons baseless or not, you can say you Cettafied that word, if you wish. I’m perfectly fine with that.
It is entirely possible I’ll add to this list of lousy nouns in the days and weeks to come, so check back periodically. These things come to me in a rage, and I can get mighty upset awfully quick. I may just write the word and let you figure why I hate it. That’s a fun parlor game for the weekend. What do you say? Let’s begin: