Tuesday, December 30, 2008

hybrid

A friend writes, “so here's one for you: hybrid. It seems to be a new buzzword and it's already driving me crazy. I saw a poster today for hybrid luggage. WTF is hybrid luggage? Does it pack itself?”

Well, no, but ‘hybrid’ has certainly entered the mainstream lexicon in a clumsy way that could lead to plenty of confusion. Like many buzzwords, it has emerged from specific fields of study only to be applied willy-nilly to all sorts of unrelated subjects.

In particular, its current popularity stems from so-called hybrid automobiles, which are even being marketed simply as ‘hybrids.’ However, it’s not really the vehicles that exhibit hybrid characteristics; it’s their engines.

In its primary biological sense, ‘hybrid’—as either a noun or an adjective—refers to the product of different animal or plant species or varieties. Similarly, a vehicle’s hybrid engine could be considered the ‘offspring’ of two different power sources, most commonly (a) an internal combustion engine that uses gasoline and (b) an electrical motor that uses a rechargeable battery.

In linguistics, meanwhile, a hybrid is a word formed by combining bits of different languages. One of the most common examples in English—by utter coincidence—is ‘automobile,’ combining the Greek ‘auto’ (‘self’) with the Latin ‘mobilis’ (movable).

More broadly, it is feasible to use ‘hybrid’ to describe anything composed of mixed, heterogeneous or incongruous elements.

In the case of hybrid luggage, the concept is to combine the benefits of soft- and hard-side luggage. Yes, that’s all; does it even count? It’s certainly not shockingly incongruous, particularly when compared to the combinations of technologies in hybrid engines that have led to truly noteworthy fuel savings—but perhaps the suitcase manufacturers are hoping to go along for the ride.

They aren’t the only ones. On December 29, 2008, a press launch of a notebook computer claimed it offered ‘hybrid storage’ simply because it combined a hard drive and a solid-state drive (which are not exactly incongruous).

Unfortunately, ‘hybrid’ is one word that may have only just begun to buzz ....

Monday, December 29, 2008

literally

It’s certainly bizarre when a word takes on an informal, disputed meaning that is the polar opposite to its formal meaning—but that’s exactly what has happened, gradually, to ‘literally.’ And the disputed version seems to be showing up everywhere these days.

The more traditional meaning is, one might say, a matter of taking things at their word. When an event is said to have happened ‘literally,’ then the event took place exactly as described, ‘to the letter,’ without exaggeration, inaccuracy, irony, metaphor or allegory. To be literal is thus to use words’ primary meanings, not to play with them.

Yet, dictionaries also acknowledge the less official connotation, whereby ‘literally’ is not used to be straightforward at all, but rather for blunt force of emphasis, exaggeration and/or intensification. This once calm adverb veers toward the superlative.

The use of ‘literally’ to describe figurative scenarios has a long history, but time has not aged it well. If anything, it has only become more ambiguous and, as a result, faces a higher risk of losing all meaning than of gaining additional meaning.

It is easy to find current examples. On December 26, 2008, MSNBC ran a story about a cat with frostbite with the headline ‘Jack Frost Nips at Little Kitten, Literally!’ This sort of use does no one any good. A case of frostbite is a case of frostbite; it is literal neither in the traditional sense (i.e. a case of being bitten by a walking, talking Jack Frost) nor in the disputed sense (i.e. a particularly intense case of frostbite, somehow worthy of exaggeration or emphasis).

Two days later, a smaller-market news source headline reported ‘… students dance (literally) after win.’ What connotation does that slyly parenthesized interruption provide? The students danced; ├ža suffit. It’s not as though we humble readers would, without ‘literally’ jammed into that headline, falsely assume that either (a) the students didn’t actually dance or (b) they did a half-assed job of it, unworthy of emphasis. We’re sufficiently likely to take the headline literally without being told to do so.

I’m sure these and other writers and editors have the best intentions, but their ongoing overuse of ‘literally’ smacks of desperation, depicting perhaps the sad state of the media, where they need such a word to serve as an exclamation point to capture readers’ attention, as though to shout “this is really important!” This path can only lead, however, to the word losing all such power, as readers become accustomed and finally blind to such messy use.

Ease off, folks, please. Less is more. (Not literally.)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3

Welcome to The Buzzkill, a new blog being developed for 2009. I am an editor in the Toronto area and plan to use this resource as a forum for the discussion of current buzzwords, catchphrases and cliches in the English language, particularly as they appear in mainstream media.

As I have never blogged before, this first post is simply a pre-launch test. Hopefully, I'll soon know what I'm doing ....