Words, like anything else, can suffer from overexposure. You can find numerous lists online of overused words–often slang terms that have lost their cachet by moving into mainstream usage. Essentially, words that are no longer cool when your parents start using them, like (according to those lists) “bae” or “fleek.” Although I have never used either of those, I remember surprising myself years ago when I first used the word “dis,” and immediately understood that it had moved from slang into the language. Then there is “corporate speak,” like “interface” or “price point.” Other words become overused in the media by announcers or reporters who must think they sound smarter (say, using “transpire” instead of “happen”) or makes it seem like they are a member of an inside group (say, using “POTUS” instead of “the President”). Lots of it is just laziness.
Over the past week or so, I was struck by the over use in the news of a particular word–one that was used in many contexts, way more than it should be, especially when there are many more interesting and attractive alternatives. Therefore, I’ve decided to highlight the surprising ubiquity of an ordinary word by creating the AOG Linguistic Kardashian Award and bestowing it on “firestorm.”
I’m not the only one to notice this phenomenon. Here’s a recent tweet from a Vanity Fair writer, and here‘s one from a local news producer in Florida. Back in 1998, The New York Times published an editorial entitled “The Firestorm Cometh,” relating to a now mostly forgotten campaign finance investigation, and whether Attorney General Janet Reno should appoint an independent prosecutor. The Times stated: “Firestorm is an overused word in Congress, but if Ms. Reno does not make the appointment, the Republican Senate leadership ought to ignite one — today.”
Nearly two decades later, “firestorm” continues to be an overused word at the Times. For example, in the past few weeks alone, the following things were reported in the paper as causing one, despite the utter lack of a single actual flame: Donald Trump’s remarks about abortion, a dispute over ski-resort boundary policies, a writer’s comments about the U Conn women’s basketball team’s dominance, a Trump staffer being charged with assault, comments about Tinder being used for casual sex, a Republican Senator’s acknowledgement that the Senate should hold hearings on Judge Garland, a political appointment in Brazil, dumb comments by a tennis official about gender equity, and the name of a pair of $2,395 Dolce & Gabbana sandals. I’m sure other media outlets would show a similar result.
Now, there are many other words that could be used in place of “firestorm.” “Kerfuffle” is fun. “Controversy” is straightforward. “Debate” or “dispute” would work perfectly well. And how about “furor” or “ruckus” or “rumpus?”
I wouldn’t want to contribute to the overexposure of a relevant song, of which there are many, so instead, I’m featuring a “one-hit wonder” from the psychedelic era, “Fire,” by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. A number 1 hit in the UK and number 2 in the US in 1968, it starts with the declaration: “I Am The God of Hellfire,” and gets crazier from there. Brown, and the band (which included Nick Greenwood, later of Steve Hillage’s band Khan, and in later incarnations included Carl Palmer, as I digress into the prog weeds for a minute) were known to kick up a rumpus on stage. As you can see in the video, Brown often set his head, and other parts of his body, on fire, leading some venues to require the posting of a bond in case of a literal firestorm, and he wore crazy makeup before Alice Cooper or Kiss, and sometimes stripped naked on stage (which, I guess, leads us back Kardashian-ward).
I’m happy to take suggestions for future words worthy of this currently unprestigious award in the comments.