At the Peevers' Jamboree

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Alison Flood at Guardian Books extracts a famous author's top linguistic peeves from an interview about how to teach writing ("Stephen King has named his most hated expressions. What are yours?", 9/15/2014),

The Atlantic’s fantastic interview on teaching, writing and reading with Stephen King is well worth reading in full. […] But perhaps the most interesting part is where teacher and writer Jessica Lahey wrangles out of King what his most irritating phrases of the moment are. […] Naming her own most irksome new phrase as “on accident” – and I’m slightly bemused as to how to use this one, so can happily state I’ve not sinned here – Lahey asked King if he had any additions to this list.

King's response was rather mild:

“’Some people say’, or ‘Many believe,’ or ‘The consensus is’. That kind of lazy attribution makes me want to kick something. Also, IMHO, YOLO, and LOL,” said the novelist.

So Flood confesses her own sin, identifying her "own most irritating word/phrase of the moment: brainchild", and then gets to the clickbait point, inviting her readers to let their own peeve flags fly:

I have used it in the past, on a few occasions , and I’m cringing to see it. What a terrible mutant hybrid of a word – why not just say “idea”? Why does it have to be the child of a brain? I vow, here and now, never to let it darken my keyboard again.  […] Comfort me, please, with your own moments of linguistic shame – and your current most-hated turns of phrase."

This is like emptying a sackful of peanuts in front of a flock of pigeons, and the readers predictably oblige, supplying (as of this moment) 2,082 comments, full of (mock?) rage:

'To be fair'. You hear this everywhere these days. People seem to think it means the same as 'to be honest'. Argh!!!

I had a manager who got into the habit of saying 'on a go-forward basis'. It was all I could do not to stab out my eardrums after about three hours of this.

Anybody who writes about always giving 110% (or any more than 100%) is both a liar and an idiot.

"That being said…" Aaaarrrrgggghhhh.

"Just saying". Especially when I see it used as a hashtag on Twitter. Yes, it is obvious that you're 'just saying', otherwise you wouldn't be er, saying it at all. Bleargh!

It's like, so hard to chose. Do you know what I mean?  Grrrrrrrrrrrr *shakes fist angrily.

'took it off of me' 'could of had it'  and just to prove that I don't have a vendetta against the word 'of' – starting with 'the thing is…' 'a big ask' I could go on but I'd then need to sit in a corner and bang my head repeatedly against the wall

In comparison, the previous five posts in the Guardian Books Blog got  46 comments ("September's Reading group: The Bridge by Iain Banks"), 21 comments ("How independent should Scottish writing be?"), 50 comments ("Ursula K Le Guin, rising above genre and so much else"), 48 comments ("Poem of the week: The Sea and the Skylark by Gerard Manley Hopkins"), and 8 comments ("Not the Booker prize shortlist: A long look at The Visitors by Simon Sylvester"), for an average of 34.6.

So asking for "your current most-hated turns of phrase" brings in two orders of magnitude more reader participation than the Book Blog's usual literary fare. I've noticed this phenomenon before (e.g. "The social psychology of linguistic naming and shaming", 2/27/2007). Being a positive and optimistic sort of person, I'll construe it as evidence for the breadth and intensity of popular interest in linguistics.

Of course, there's more in Jessica Laheys interview ("How Stephen King Teaches Writing", The Atlantic 9/9/2014) than the fragmentary peeves that Alison Flood extracted from it. Stan Carey finds the basis for an instructive discussion of what the "Oxford comma" is (and is not) —  "Oxford commas, Nelson Mandela, and Stephen King", 9/15/2014.




  1. Rube said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 7:22 am

    Does anybody really use "To be fair" to mean "To be honest"? I don't recall seeing it used by anybody who wasn't trying to be, well, fair, to a person they were criticizing.

  2. Dick Margulis said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 7:30 am

    I think that "I had a manager who got into the habit of saying" is the basis of a large part of the peeving phenomenon. If you notice some disfluency or a bit of sloppy thinking reflected in the way someone of lower social or economic rank speaks, well, that's to be expected, after all. But if someone who makes more money than you do by definition (your manager or the company president) or who has higher social status (an elected official, a professional) is less articulate than you are (in your perception), well, that's just not fair, is it? Of course, you're annoyed. Who wouldn't be‽

    I'm sure there are other classes of peevers, but I think that sense of injustice is what underlies a big one. If so, then the language peeve is just an excuse to vent an unrelated frustration. Just as where the other person squeezes the toothpaste tube isn't really the reason people get divorced, so the boss's habitual use of business jargon isn't really the reason people look for a new job.

    [(myl) Indeed. See "The social psychology of linguistic naming and shaming"…]

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 8:26 am

    I'm annoyed by "wrangles out" where "wangles out" is meant and by "his most irritating phrases of the moment", "her most irksome new phrases", etc. It sounds like Lahey asked for the phrases King uses at the moment that most irritate others.

    Maybe some here would like to know that "on accident" means "by accident", analogously to "on purpose". I hear it now and then from young people in New Mexico.

  4. mike said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 9:17 am

    Wait, is this post itself turning into a peevers' jamboree?

  5. Nathan said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 9:45 am

    Well, mike, I expect a lot of us will pile on about the peeves we hate to see peevers peeving about. Isn't that the way this works?

  6. Brett said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 9:53 am

    "On accident" seems to be very common among young children.

  7. Ralph said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 9:59 am

    This is a meta-peevers' jamboree. Peeving about the peevers. Naturally, the social psychology of the meta-peever is completely different from the peever…

  8. Chris Wl. said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 10:22 am

    Is "slightly bemused" ever used outside the pedant context? Also, is that a thing that people dislike "brainchild"? I think it's a colorful word.

  9. Terry Hunt said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 10:23 am

    Let the meta-peeving commence!

  10. cameron said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 10:24 am

    "Brainchild" can be thought of as an example of a kenning. I think we should encourage use of kennings.

  11. nl7 said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 10:42 am

    To be fair, I use a lot of those peeves. The thing is, the consensus that many people believe is that we draw on the language as it's spoken around us. If I use a phrase, it's because I took it off somebody else – it sure wasn't my brainchild. That being said, maybe on a go-forward basis I should avoid those constructions. Just saying.

  12. Martin Ball said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 10:48 am

    @nl7: You mean: 'took it off of somebody else', surely!! ;)

  13. Thomas Rees said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 10:52 am

    Surely nl7 meant "took it off of somebody else".

  14. Ralph said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 10:54 am

    I had never thought about "brainchild" in that way, but of course you are right. And somehow, for me, it makes the expression feel much more attractive now that I realize it's in the same tradition as such eloquent expressions as "slaughter-dew" (blood), "wound-hoe" (sword), "ankle-biter", even "bookworm". Glorious imagery.

  15. nl7 said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 10:56 am

    I could of written it that way, LOL. IMHO, people get peeved too much, considering that YOLO.

  16. nl7 said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 11:06 am

    Yeargh, contra my humorous attempt to proliferate other people's peeves, switching near-homophones (of/have, are/our, an/and) is one that I confess bugs me. It shouldn't really matter any more than contractions (if I'd design'd English usage, I'd've mandated more use 'f contr'ct'ns!), and in fact the meaning is usually pretty clear despite the switch. But I guess it "looks wrong" to my eye, whereas the others are more in the nature of cliched or informal.

  17. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 11:07 am

    I assume w/o ever having checked an actual reference work on its etymology (and I'm certainly not going to spoil things by googling now), that "brainchild" got its start as a learned allusion to the way in which Zeus reputedly gave birth to Athena, which ought to make it all hoity-toity. Perhaps Ms. Flood did not have the sort of old-fashioned education that would would have prepared her to pick up on allusions of that nature?

  18. Toma said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 1:40 pm

    I thought the post was about words/phrases that people were simply personally annoyed by. Not that they thought there was something grammatically, stylistically, or linguistically wrong with them. So someone is annoyed by "brainchild." I'm annoyed by asparagus. I'm aware of its nutritional value, but I don't think it should be universally banned.

  19. EricF said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 2:43 pm

    YOLO? What do people have against owls?

  20. Peter Taylor said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 3:52 pm

    @J. W. Brewer, makes no mention of Greek mythology, but nevertheless I am glad to have checked it because of this gem:

    Earlier was the more alliterative brain-brat (1630).

  21. Scott McClure said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 4:24 pm

    I have to wonder if the distribution of comments on posts/articles typically follows Zipf's Law.

  22. Pat Twit said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 5:58 pm

    Hello fun people!

    The only problem I have with "brainchild" is that people get it mixed up with "mastermind". Complementary but inverse concepts… Improbable yet true. I encountered this mixup in a science fiction piece a year or so ago, & deleted all other memory of that story from my childish brain. NOW I CAN'T PROVE IT HAPPENED!

  23. Bathrobe said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 8:36 pm

    Why is brainchild worse than rugrat?

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