From A-List to Zero Tolerance: Michael Shmith’s Banned Words

Our Lunchbox/Soapbox guest last week was Michael Shmith. A senior writer and opera critic for the Age, specialising in arts journalism, he’s been immersed in the business of words for decades.

Talking to an audience of fellow word-lovers at the Wheeler Centre, he shared the words and phrases that annoy him most – and some favourites, too.

Increasingly irritated by the clichés and ‘slapdashery’ that abound these days, Shmith ran an opinion piece in the Age one New Year’s Eve on ‘Irritating Language I Want to See Banned – Literally’.

‘My A-Z began with A-list and ended with zero tolerance … which will only happen when I become a supreme dictator,’ he said.

Other pet hates were:

moving forward (cue crowd applause)

leaning forward (the US version of Julia Gillard’s discarded mantra)

uncertain future (‘tell me a future that isn’t’)

the use of weather in news reports as an indicator of mood (for instance, ‘rain failed to deter their appearance’)

Another chief irritation was the use of the word ’vow’ in place of ‘promise’, usually by reporters on behalf of politicians and other public figures.

‘Why the sudden increase in public figures taking religious orders?’ quipped Shmith. His guess? ‘Vow’ is four letters shorter than ‘promise’ and is thus easier to fit into a headline.

He said ‘origami’ has invaded the speech patterns of journalists as ‘relentlessly as Paterson’s Curse’, with phrases like ‘how the story unfolded’.

‘What ever happened to the good old word developed, or formed?’

Why do police always swoop? Why are celebrities always ‘whisked away’, like egg whites? Why do people ‘lose their battle’ with cancer, when the battle is fought on behalf of the patient, by medical professionals?

He proposed that journalism outlets should have the equivalent of a swear box for such words and phrases, but affably concluded that journalism ‘mostly gets it right’.

‘Just as there is always something to say, there is always a new way to say it. There aren’t many guides to originality.’ But he did suggest one simple rule of thumb: ‘If it pleases me, it might please you.’

He quoted Elmore Leonard’s advice: ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it’.

Words he misses? There are many, he says, including Australian phrases like ‘bonza’ and - a particular favourite - ‘discombobulate’.

Shmith shared a trade secret about the art of Age editorials with the scandalised and delighted audience. He enjoys writing editorials, because it’s the one area within the newspaper where it’s okay to use ‘words you wouldn’t introduce your mother to’. He and the other editorial writers used to have competitions to see how many ridiculous words they could fit into an editorial, he said, warning the audience to keep an eye on the editorials. If there seems to be a curious amount of wordy words packed into one editorial, then a competition is likely afoot.

He invited the audience to share their own bugbears, which they happily did. One audience member bemoaned the way everything is abbreviated these days. (‘Can you ask the Age to stop letting its writers use ‘brekkie’ instead of breakfast?’ she pleaded.)

Shmith concurred with her observation, citing the word ‘celeb’ and the phenomenon of celebrity couples merging into one word, like ‘Brangelina’. (‘There’s a word I thought would never cross my lips,’ he laughed. ‘Ten dollars in the swear jar!’)

And the Wheeler Centre’s Jenny Niven shared some of her own pet hates, including ‘it is what it is’ and ‘punching above its weight’.

What are some the words you’d like to see banned? Or words you’d love to see used more often?

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