Hated Words: Nice, LOL, Phlegm

ZOË RICE: As a word nerd, I get frustrated by “LOL” the same way I do by Alanis Morissette’s song “Ironic.” Because no. No, you’re not. Rain on your wedding day just sucks, and if you’re writing “lol,” I’m guessing no one just heard you guffaw. But nerdy fussiness aside, overuse of what’s barely even an acronym anymore has stripped it of any meaning. You may as well be typing “Email tic to make me seem friendly and lighthearted! Wink!”

I’m not condemning those who “lol.” Some of my best friends “lol.” (Note use of the acronym as its own word. We’re clearly not talking about the gerund, ”laughing.”) I just wish we could find something else to convey a lighthearted tone over email. Something that’s not lying to me. Personally, I convey the sound of my laughter. I “ha,” “heh,” and “hee,” depending on the type of reaction. Sometimes you will even get a “hahahaha” out of me. And when I’m being sarcastic? But I don’t want to sound mean? Because sometimes you tease someone with an impish glint in your eye, but you can’t see your eye, so it just comes off as a snappish little comment, and then you get rebuked and feel totally bad because that’s not what you meant at all? Well, then I use the smiley face. I’m guilty. I smiley.

It’s the self-referential use of LOL that bugs me most. LOL is not a catch-all. If it still retains a vestige of its original meaning, it implies laughing at something. Are you really telling me you just laughed at your own comment? Or even worse, I can’t help bristling when someone just plain chucks in an “lol” for no good reason whatsoever. ”The car in front of me would not move, lol.” “I told her I had to go, lol.” Wait…did I miss the funny?

LOL is an example of language losing its meaning (or–if I’m allowed to plunge into the deepest chasm of nerdiness and say it all semiotics-like–stripping a signifier from what it signifies.) I guess I’m not yet ready to let the acronym become its own word, especially if that word is really just a tic that doesn’t mean anything concrete at all. Inbox, I don’t want you to lie to me. Don’t tell me you laughed out loud when you really only inwardly smiled. Just show me a pretty picture. That winking face with the tongue sticking out? Yeah, I totally know what you mean :-)

EMILY SAIDEL: Can the sound of a word be separated from its meaning when the person interpreting is a native speaker? Probably not. There are words that are fun to say, such as perambulate, even if the meaning is commonplace. But one word turns my stomach, both literally and linguistically: phlegm.

Let’s get this out of the way. The object, the item, the signified, phlegm, is gross. It usually only happens when one is ill and has a distinctly unappealing texture. If Crayola named a crayon “phlegm green” it would probably be the last one in the box. Phlegm is the cold and watery humor, and to the ancient Greeks, indicated a cold, emotionless personality. Phlegm conjures images of its cousin mucus and the poorly chosen mucus spokesman of the Mucenix commercial. (Although if I remember what the commercial is for, it is succeeding in some way, even if my association to that commercial is “Horrors.”) I stipulate that phlegm is disgusting.

But I find phlegm, the word, the sound, the sign, equally disgusting.

Ph hidden behind eff sounds. A silent g. These characteristics plague the phonetic speaker. But I am most disturbed by the lack of a hard consonant at the end. No sense of ending or conclusion like the hard tee of spit or expectorate or eject. The open ended “em” leaves open the idea that the phlegm is not concluded. It may continue. It may come again. Phlegm sits on the tongue and results in a mouth left open as if the word has not concluded. The soft ee only reinforces the lack of assertiveness about phlegm. Even bile, not a particularly delightful word itself, commits to a long i sound. Phlegm is not a word that makes decisions and sticks with them.

In phlegm, sound and meaning combine to create a truly unpleasant experience. Perhaps if phelgm were disassociated from sickness, and meant ice cream, ala The Twilight Zone then I would find the sound less objectionable. But not necessarily. But the unappetizing aspects of the phonemes of p-h-l-e-g-m hold their own, distinct from the dictionary definition.

AKIE BERMISS:  There’s nothing nice about the word “nice.”  Its a horribly over-used little adjective that gets under my skin like little else. Its become some unmeaningful that I think I’d rather be insulted to my core-most attributes than to be called “nice” by any one.  Nice is the instantly forgettably, plucky over-weight friend of the cool kid. Nobody really remembers Nice’s name so we just call him: Nice.

Its not the word “nice” that bothers me, in particular.  Its our usage of the word that drives me insane (and truth be told, I’m responsible for some “nice” deluges, myself).  Take the following typical American english dialogue for example.  A perfectly ordinary conversation between too people in a long and stable relationship.

Hey, Hon — How was your day?

Oh — it was nice, Dear.  How was yours?

Well it was a nice day to be outside and I found this nice little coffee-shop where I there was some wifi.  I did some online shopping and bought you some nice shoes for Jane’s wedding next week.

Oh nice.

Yeah — it was so nice to hear from her the other day.  What did you think of her fiance, John?

Oh him?  He was nice, I guess.

I think they make a nice couple, don’t you.

Yes.  Yes, I do.

Yes, it can go on like this for hours.  To read it, you’d think I was really exaggerating our daily use of the word “nice.”  But I’m not.  I’m really not.  I sit on trains and in restaurants and in front of the television and day after day, hour after hour, yea — unto the minutes of the hours am I bombarded with Nice’s indivisible niceness.  It is a vacuum of a word that sucks all the vividness from a scenario. There’s nothing like turning to your lover after a passionate moment and telling just how nice you think they are.  (“Gosh, babe: you’re nice!”) When someone tells me to have a “nice” day, I know they don’t give a damn about me.  It certainly seems like you don’t care.  How much of a stretch would it be to say something a little more descriptive? Something a little more committed?  For example, why not: Have a lovely day?  Or beautiful day?  Or a productive, happy, or even shitty day?  I’d rather that than a nice day.  “Nice” has ousted even the ever-nondescript “good” from its position at the bottom of the rung of descriptors.

And while there is a jocular sentiment behind my words, there is also an earnest pleading.  How much of our day-to-day interaction might be more meaningful if we did do as our mother’s once asked and really thought before we spoke?  Imagine a world where when you asked someone how they were: they told you at first blush.  Where instead of saying, “You look nice.”  We might truly try to describe our observations.  Are we all become living-breathing Hemingway characters?  Simply saying this and saying that?  Assigning to no value to the things we desire, loathe, or are indifferent about?  Subtlety is lost on us modern english speakers, by and large.  Do we all observe that saying some one is acting stupidly is not the say as saying they are stupid?  Or do we lazily translate those as the same statement?  Do we record the subtle difference between: “You look divine in that dress” and “That dress looks divine”?

Little changes.  Little commitments.  Little rearrangements.   That’s all I’m asking, after all.  Just a little extra effort. These things provide us with a whole varied range of shadings in our speech.  Before “nice” became a substitute for the word “is” — it carried many meanings.  It still does, in fact, but the speaker must labor to be understood as such.  Used to be, when you went to a formal dinner, you have to observe certain niceties with your host.  Also if someone said you had a nice sense for fashion, they were describing you as being above the common denominator — a person of keen and fine tastes (remember when “fine” meant something too?).  Finally, there was a time when, if you let your elderly grandmother drink too many glasses of rum punch at the family reunion, she would get nice and start singing love songs to her spoon.

No longer.  Now you got to a formal dinner and you make sure you play NICE.  You have an adequate eye for fashion when you “dress NICE.”  And, now its perfectly reasonable to say, “I liked your grandmother’s singing.  She’s NICE.”  They’re all the same thing.  Just, you know: NICE.

Well look, friends, I’m tired using kid gloves in public.  That’s right: no more Mr. Nice Guy (they finish last, I hear).  I’m through with that.  I’m going to start dropping nice-bombs all over the place.  Fully loaded, mega-ton yield nice-bombs.  I’m gonna get all up in your face with the NICENESS.  I’ll be nice-ing your moms and your pops and your little sisters.  There will be no escaping my vast and powerful mediocre parlance.  I will be the Niceroy of Nicedom.  Its all over now.  We’ve had a good run, you’ve been a fine audience: and its been nice knowing ya!

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