Thursday, January 19, 2012

Word peeve: an egregious overuse of a perfectly good word

Remember studying comparative and superlative in school?  Good, better, best. Bad, worse, worst. Fast, faster, fastest. Many, more, most.

For years, a beautiful word lurked in the huge English dictionaries at high schools and universities. It meant "bad". Really bad. Bad-beyond-superlative-bad. The kind of bad that only exists in a few rare places in space and time. The word was "egregious".

Then O.J. Simpson went on trial for the murder of a couple of people. One of the teams of lawyers discovered the word "egregious" (thanks for nothing, Mr. Roget) and started using it in court. Over and over. Then the other team of lawyers latched onto it and started overusing it. Then the reporters covering the trial started using it on TV. (But not in original print, astonishingly. I guess it's too hard for reporters to spell.)

Suddenly everybody in the English-speaking world was using "egregious" when any one of a number of other synonyms for "very bad" would have sufficed. It lost its sense of "really, really, bad". The poor word got overused to the point of meaninglessness.

At least it relieved some of the pressure on "heinous".


Anonymous said...

I work a lot with attorneys. They are the ONLY people I know that use that word. ANNOYING!!! They use it ALL THE TIME. Just shoot me...

Great article!!


Unknown said...

OMG!! My co-worker (she's a lawyer but we do not work for a law-related organization) uses that word ALL THE FREAKING TIME!!!! I started to wonder if lawyers use this word more than any other people b/c I've never heard anyone in my life use it THAT MANY TIMES on a daily basis. Low and behold, I googled "lawyers use of the word egregious" and stumbled across this blog. HAHAAH awesome. But yeah SOOOO freaking annoying. She's way too liberal with the word and 99% of the time the context in which she uses it in is way too exaggerated and it just sounds dumb. Ugh. ANNOYING!! LOL.

Anonymous said...

Like egregious, the term "tragedy" is overused inappropriately. It is a term in literature specifically referring to the type of story in which a character's personal failing ("fatal flaw") leads to his/her own undoing. Today, reporters don't bother to consider more than one word to describe any particular thing. So when a bad thing happens to a good person, they always use "tragedy" (or "tragic").

I could understand it if the person had given in to an impulse or led themselves in some other way to their demise but usually the victims did nothing different than anyone else and bore no responsibility for what happened to them. Instead of using perfectly evocative words ranging from unfortunate to sad to horrible to devastating, the media feel safest sticking to "tragic" to refer to any premature death. This is the case even when it's clearly the result of an unavoidable accident, the course of a disease, or someone else's crime.

One example is the murder of several thousand 911 victims. It was a terrible, murderous, despicable crime of huge proportions. Having made that clear, no one should be offended to hear that it was not a "tragedy", as classically defined. To say it was would literally imply that those innocent victims allowed it to happen due to their own personal behavior. Though inadvertent, saying that would actually be an expression of "blame the victim".