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12 Horrible Gobbledygook Words We Reluctantly Accepted

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Just as there is nothing certain in this world but death and taxes, there is nothing certain in language but that it will change, and that people will react badly. One of the changes people find most offensive is the spread of professional jargon that has been coined to replace simpler, clearer words we already have. Anyone up for some collaborative incentivizing going forward? No? Well, maybe one day your great-grandchildren will be. Here are 12 words that people once thought were horrible gobbledygook that nobody flinches at anymore.

1. Contact

While many people still don't like impact as a verb, contact has settled into verbdom quite comfortably. But it had a hard time in the beginning. In 1937, it was number four on a widely published list of the 10 most "overworked" words, with members of the advertising industry named as the worst offenders. In 1931, an official at Western Union wanted to institute a company-wide ban on the usage. He said the verb shouldn't be allowed "to soil any good Western Union paper." He went so far as to say the "loathsome" person who invented this "hideous vulgarism" should have been "destroyed in early childhood," arguing that "so long as we can meet, get in touch with, make the acquaintance of, be introduced to, call on, interview or talk to people, there can be no apology for contact."

2. Interview

While interview may have been a proper alternative to contact in 1931, people weren't always friendly to it, at least in the sense where it means the asking of questions by members of the press. An 1882 book on rhetoric describes how this verb was "first accepted in jest, then violently denounced, and finally, by a strange fate, it appears to be accepted with mournful resignation." In 1890, a New York Times article took to task the "newspaper fiends who have forced us to admit to the rights of citizenship the verb 'to interview.'"

3. Optimism/Pessimism

These came into fashion in the 1880s, and by 1892, one magazine columnist complained about "the way in which the word Pessimism gets flung about of late … one encounters it at every turn … and it is made to serve as the label of almost every expression of discontent with the existing order of things." In 1904, another exasperated magazine writer asked, "Who will contribute the first dollar to a fund to furnish definitions of the words optimism and pessimism to writers who use the words as synonyms of cheerfulness and despondency?"

4. Mortician

This word was first printed in the February 1895 issue of Embalmers Monthly, where it was proposed as a replacement for "undertaker" or "funeral director." People outside the industry didn't much care for it, complaining that it "grates the ear." For decades afterward it was called "ugly," "affected," an "uncouth stranger," and an "atrocity" of a euphemism. The literary critic Harry Levin called it a "pseudo-Latinism of dubious currency."

5. Purist

In 1883, a journalist named Godfrey Turner went on an awesome rampage against purist, writing, "What a word! We have here positively the only instance of an attempt to make a noun, by this clumsy inflection, direct out of a raw adjective." He wasn't done with it yet though, going on to write in another publication, "whoever first committed to the legibility of black and white that vicious noun-substantive has, it may be hoped, lived to repent a deed that offends forever against verbal purity … among all blundering conceits of modern phraseology, [it] stands distinguished from its misshapen fellows by an unapproachable singularity of malformation."

6. Reliable

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An 1860 review of a new dictionary of English lamented that author "gives a place to the superfluous word reliable, which has well nigh superseded the old fashioned idiomatic term trustworthy." The reviewer is pleased, however, that the dictionary explains why "this anomalous and deformed word" makes no sense: To get the intended meaning, the word should be "reliuponable," which would be "ludicrous."

7. Antibody

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In his 1916 writing guide, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch calls this word "a barbarism, and a mongrel at that." He complains that "when it became an accepted custom for each nation to use its own language in scientific treatises, it certainly was not foreseen that men of science would soon be making discoveries at a rate which left their skill in words outstripped," and that "they would bombast out our dictionaries with monstrously invented words." He concludes that "for our own self-respect, whilst we retain any sense of intellectual pedigree, antibody is no word to throw at a bacillus."

8. Electrocution

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In 1899, the Chicago Eagle advised its readers that this word, though "popularly applied to this process of inflicting capital punishment, is a bad and incorrect one," and the correct term was "execution by electricity." The Sacramento Daily Record-Union said, "the English language has enough to bear in the way of absurdity, slang and vulgarity, without this new affliction." But the best condemnation of electrocution came from Ambrose Bierce's 1909 catalogue of language peeves, Write it Right, where he called the word "no less than disgusting, and the thing meant by it is felt to be altogether too good for the word's inventor."

9. Proposition

For decades, style guides hated the use of proposition for proposal. In 1914, an English professor named Richard Burnton described his irritation with the word this way: "Take the ubiquitous and awful word proposition. Used at first in business and perhaps needed there, it has waxed so arrogant that you hear it on every side, wherever two or three are gathered together. 'That's a different proposition' is sickeningly familiar to the jaded ear, and may now be taken to refer to anything from a comparison of the beauty of women to a statement of a new turn in the Balkan imbroglio."

10. Demote

When people started using demote as the opposite of promote in the 1890s, they would put quotation marks around it to indicate there was uncertainty about whether it was okay to use. Some argued that retromote would be a better word from an etymological standpoint, but one letter to the editor called both coinages "barbarisms," and proposed that the proper term for sending someone down a class was the one used at Harvard—drop. Though demote came to be accepted pretty quickly, it appeared on the "Don't List" of editorial standards for the New York Herald until 1918 with the comment, "there is no word demote."

11. Balance

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Balance, in the sense of "what's left of something" was once frowned upon as an irritating misuse of bookkeeping jargon. In 1913, The American Business Encyclopedia and Legal Adviser advised against using it in social situations outside the office where it was considered "vulgar." The literary critic Richard Grant White lamented that "people speak even of the balance of a day, of spending thus or so the balance of their time, or even the balance of their lives" and that he found this "hideous English…it cannot be too often or too severely censured."

12. Donate

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White didn't hold back on donate either: "I need hardly say, that this word is utterly abominable – one that any lover of simple honest English cannot hear with patience and without offence. It has been formed by some presuming and ignorant person from donation…when we have give, present, grant, confer, endow, bequeath, devise, with which to express the act of transferring possession in all its possible varieties."

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Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
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In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Using Words Like 'Really' A Lot Could Mean You're Really Stressed
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Are you feeling really exhausted? Or have you noticed that it's incredibly hot out today?

If you recognize the adverbs above as appearing frequently in your own speech, it could be a sign that you're stressed. At least, those are the findings in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Nature reports, researchers found that peppering our speech with "function words" is a pretty accurate indicator of our anxiety levels.

Function words differ from verbs and nouns in that they don't mean much on their own and mostly serve to clarify the words around them. Included in this group are pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. A team of American researchers suspected that people use these words more frequently when they're stressed, so to test their hypothesis, they hooked up recording devices to 143 volunteers.

After transcribing and analyzing audio clips recorded periodically over the course of two days, the researchers compared subjects' speech patterns to the gene expressions of certain white blood cells in their bodies that are susceptible to stress. They found that people exhibiting the biological symptoms of stress talked less overall, but when they did speak up they were more likely to use words like really and incredibly.

They also preferred the pronouns me and mine over them and their, possibly indicating their self-absorbed world view when under pressure. The appearance of these trends predicted stress in the volunteers' genes more accurately than their own self-assessments. As study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature, this could be a reason for doctors to "listen beyond the content" of the symptoms their patients report and pay greater attention "to the way it is expressed" in the future.

One reason function words are such a great indicator of stress is that we often insert them into our sentences unconsciously, while our choice of words like nouns and verbs is more deliberate. Anxiety isn't the only thing that influences our speech without us realizing it. Hearing ideas we agree with also has a way of shaping our syntax.

[h/t Nature]

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