One Word After Another – James A. Autry – Nov/Dec 18

Keeping Up With the Language

Aren’t you tired of hearing older people (like me) say “cool?” So why do we do it? Because, and this is important, we are fearful of being “out of it” or “behind the times” or, worse, “obsolete.” The problem is that we are so self-conscious about being accused of trying to be with it or up to date or still relevant—in other words “cool”—that we end up sounding uncool.

So in the quest to not be “uncool,” I have decided to devote some of my time to advocating for a return to what might be called “ordinary English.” My friend Arthur Neis has encouraged me in this effort. He asks, “Why do we insist on choosing words that can’t be communicated in ordinary English?”

Perhaps his more challenging question is, “Why do we choose words that extravagate?” Arthur then suggests that we don’t want to commit through precision in our language. Think about that: We may not even want to commit to clarity.

The best examples of this are in the advertising field. I saw that there was going to be a “food truck throw-down.” I wondered if this was a warning to stand back while someone threw down the food.

What about the “blowouts” so often advertised: “BIG BLOWOUT IN HDTVs!!!” Someone from another country might think those TVs were on the verge of violent destruction.

And how long has it been since you’ve seen a trunk? But never mind, there will be several trunk sales each season.

I’ve looked at a lot of used cars in my day, but they no longer exist. Now there are only “pre-owned” cars, begging the question, how do you pre-own a car (or anything, for that matter)?

Have you seen those obituaries noting that the dearly beloved was “predeceased” by others who have passed on? That one is a real head-shaker.

I haven’t even mentioned “amazing.” This used to be a powerful word, but its overuse has disempowered it. So many things are described as amazing that there is nothing truly amazing any more. 

In case you’ve not noticed, the expression “no problem” (the default response to “thank you”) seems now to be moving out of favor. In its place is “absolutely.”

Me: “I’d like cup of coffee please.”

Waitperson: “Absolutely!”

Me: “May I see the dessert menu?”

Waitperson: “Absolutely!”

Me: “Thank you.”

Waitperson: “Absolutely.”

This just in: Cool is out, completely out, and those who use it are very uncool indeed. If anyone or anything is to be worthy of our esteem, they must now be “awesome.”

And just wait. Before this column is published, the expression will be (in Arthur’s word) extravagated on up to “absolutely awesome.”

I know that the language grows and changes and, as my word-genius son Rick says, academics and experts may have rules about grammar and usage, but it is the people, not the experts, who really determine the use of language.

Be that as it may, I personally find it absolutely amazing and very uncool that people choose not to communicate in ordinary English, whatever that is.


Mississippi native James A. Autry (jamesaautry.com) of Des Moines is a well-known author, poet, musician and business consultant who has written 14 books on such topics as gratitude, servant leadership and his Southern boyhood. Autry recently published his first novel (click here).

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