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February 9, 2005 - Pretentious Language - 2005-02-08

February 9, 2005

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: more "junk English."

RS: Back in 2001, we talked to writer Ken Smith about his book "Junk English." In his words, "Junk English is much more than sloppy grammar." "

Most often it is a trick we play on ourselves," he says, "to make the unremarkable seem important."

AA: Ken Smith is back with a sequel, "Junk English 2." I talked to him about some examples of what he considers pretentious language. Yet even he admits that sometimes, the best way to say something is not always what people want to hear.

KEN SMITH: "If you speak precisely in idiomatic American English, it almost sounds pretentious, because idiomatic American English is very casual. So you've got the sort of pretentious variant, you've got the normal variant and then you've got sort of the junk English variant falling off to the other side.

"So say you take a word like, I don't know, 'talk.' Now, if you wanted to say that with sort of a pretentious air, you'd say 'converse.' It's not necessarily wrong. But it has a sort of a snobbish air to it that's not really casual as American English is. But if you wanted to go over to the junk English side, you'd say 'you know, we need to dialogue.'

"Using dialogue as a verb, that's definitely junk English. And the problem is that sometimes you have to understand what the purpose of the language is. Do you want to be correct? Do you want to be clear? Or do you want to fit in with your crowd? It's almost like there's three different languages at play here."

AA: "Well, right -- take a word like 'succeed,' you could say 'I succeeded' or 'I did well.' What would be the junk ... "

KEN SMITH: "Well, 'succeed.' Well, I don't know -- you might have been 'impactful.' That might be a junk English use. I think actually 'impactful' is more 'effective.' Like if you were effective, the pretentious English variant of that would be, you were 'efficacious.' But the junk English is, you were 'impactful.'

"So there's a lot of examples like that. Well, like, 'new' is another good example -- 'new,' a simple word, but if you want to be pretentious you'd say 'oh, that's postmodern.' If you use it in art, that's fine, I mean it's an established sort of jargon in art. But I mean if you use it to describe something like 'oh, that's very postmodern,' if you're referring to a new car that you've got, I mean it's pretentious."

AA: "And elsewhere in your book I came across a word that we do hear a good bit lately, is the word 'meme,' and I've always wanted to -- "

KEN SMITH: "Oh meme, yeah."

AA: " -- to do something about that. First of all, could you explain what exactly is a meme?"

KEN SMITH: "Well, a meme is -- again, it's a term of philosophy. It's actually a term of science, meaning to sort of describe a thought or a belief or a behavior that can spread from one person to another within a culture. It's a very specific term. And again if you're using it in an academic sense, that's fine. But then the word has sort of spilled over, like so many terms do, into the general language. And that's just pretentious. 'I'm utterly enthralled with your new meme.' You know, it's an idea. You had an idea or a thought. That's what a meme is in general usage."

AA: "And we should spell it: M-E-M-E. So it's not 'me-me', it's a meme [laughter]. And you say it's 'pretentious language for idea, slogan and so on.' Now but, as I've heard that term used, isn't it sort of like an idea that spreads like a virus?"

KEN SMITH: "Well, but all -- I mean, you could say that of any idea. I mean, you could make that analogy. That's just a metaphor -- you know, 'that's viral marketing,' as they use in business terminology. So is that a meme? I don't know. I think they're just ideas."

AA: "Now let me ask you, is there a term where you have to use the pretentious form of it?"

KEN SMITH: "It's not necessarily pretentious. I mean, some words I don't like but I can't think of a better way of saying it -- for example, 'multitasking.' I don't like 'multitasking.' It just seems kind of long and grating. But I honestly can't think of a better, more efficient way to say 'doing several things at once' or 'doing a lot of things at the same time,' which is what multitasking means. So it's a useful word. Much as I dislike it, I have to admit that it serves a purpose."

AA: "Now I'm looking at the cover of your book here. It's 'Junk English 2: the Inevitability of Sequelization.'"


AA: "Is that your idea of a joke?"

KEN SMITH: "Yes, it is. [laughter] The clean way of saying that would be 'the inevitable sequel.' But the junk English way is to say the 'inevitability of sequelization.' One of the ways of recognizing junk English is, it's tacking a lot of extra syllables onto specific words. For example, we cited impact before. Well, that's now become 'impactfulness,' which makes a bad thing worse. That's a problem that we have here in America. I'm not sure that people in other countries speaking English do that. I hope they don't."

AA: Ken Smith is a writer. His newest book is called "Junk English 2."

RS: If you'd like to "impact" your English learning, visit our Web site: And our e-mail address is With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.