Walking Our Pet Words
An embarrassing story from teen years: I’m napping hard in my tent, exhausted from the grueling schedule of cycling up and down hills, navigating narrow country roads, and trying to avoid the fate of unfortunate roadside distraction. What normal 17-year-old girl signs herself up for a cycling tour around the Olympic Peninsula? Anyway, I was so exhausted I forgot all about our usual afternoon agenda meeting. When I finally woke up with that awful White Rabbit yelp of “I’m late! I’m late!” I knew I would not be able to sneak in unobtrusively. My embarrassment was doubled when the group all paused, turned to face me, gleefully shouting, “Terrific!” It was then I knew they were calling me out on my pet word.
Pet words. Admit it–you have at least one. Maybe you have several on a leash and you walk them out and about without realizing it.
I happened upon Matthew J.X. Malady’s article “You Have A Word That You Constantly Use Without Realizing It — Here’s Where You Got It.” Personally I prefer the email forward title of “How ‘Signature Words Spread.”
As I read the article I began to better understand why I latch on to certain words. Here’s a snippet:
Diane Boxer, a professor at the University of Florida who specializes in sociolinguistics, says that when we find ourselves in a situation where someone uses language differently than we do, or words we’re unfamiliar with, we usually respond in one of two ways.
“We either start to mimic them in some way, or distinguish ourselves from their usage,” she says. “This has to do with how we want to portray our identities. If we identify with them, want to be like them, we’ll start speaking like they do.”
I can relate to that point. I may not do it consciously, although I think my brain picks up on admiration and rolls out a word or phrase associated with that person or character. However, it is embarrassing when we are called out on it. The article cites another reason we adopt pet words.
Stanford psychology professorBenoit Monin, I shouldn’t pat myself on the back too fervently. In many cases, when we decide to latch onto these sorts of words, it’s because we’re using language to put on a show. “There could be some element of language snobbery here,” says Monin, whose research focuses on self-image and social norms. “Like, ‘I’m a discriminate language user, and I use these rare words that few people use, and by using them I show that I’m educated.’ ”
Oh dear, I don’t want to be considered a snob. What about aficionado? I collect words. Some of them sound so cool I can’t avoid repeating them. There is also that “why order vanilla when huckleberry creme is available?” It seems so plebian to say plain words when so many variants are available. Is that snobbery or creatively erudite?
The article goes on to mention research conducted by Duke University professor Dan Ariely and Stanford’s Jonathan Levay.
Ariely and Levav say that there exists “the desire to portray oneself as interesting and unique” when we interact with others, and that we will in some cases make irrational decisions to avoid looking like a copycat.
I will admit I often strive to set myself apart. I often find myself grasping at ways to express myself in a memorable manner. Sometimes this works and sometimes this fails. As in Epic Failure. Note to self: check with urban dictionary before employing certain terms with teens when teaching.
This malady doesn’t cover one very prominent reason for signature or pet words: laziness. I know I fall back on certain words because I get into a habit of saying them. When my “terrific” warning light flashes on my brain instrument panel, I know I’m close to getting a drubbing on overusage. This week I know I have to rid myself of “channeling” and “solid.” I recently purged lexicon retorts of “perfect.”
Do you have pet words you walk long and often? Is difficult for you to curb their exuberance to romp?