Don’t be a hostage to hackneyed talk: 5 mystifying words you should challenge

Posted on 05-28-2016 by
Tags: legal writing , legalwriting , LIT , Catapult Your Career

In the mainstream media, the establishment often creates a neo-romantic idea of modern democracy. Only the avid American understands this.

I wrote this sentence, but I don’t know what the hell it means.

I feel stupid reading it. It’s crammed full of mystifying words. True, those words suffer from my forced context. But well beyond that, they suffer from vagueness and overuse.

The following 5 words are equivalent to word bullying; i.e., you hear them, and it’s like getting sand kicked in your face. Next time you hear one of these words, be the hero. Demand a definition. 

The Establishment

Simply defined, the establishment is:

a group in a society exercising power and influence over matters of policy or taste, and seen as resisting change.

Fine, but when somebody says “the establishment,” I wonder: “Who exactly lurks within this shadowy group?” There’s not a list of names, but I know they wield immense power and control, not unlike the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Bilderberg Club, Skull and Bones, and, of course, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

People have tried to penetrate this mysterious term. NPR’s Danielle Kurtzleben took a definitional stab. After probing the term historically, she wrote:

To use the term is to point the finger. It happens when politicians define some dangerous "other," whether it's Sanders' "millionaire and billionaire class" or Donald Trump's Washington that refuses to "win" anymore.

Mainstream Media

I don’t doubt that the mainstream media is a thing, but it has a fuzzy circumference. Noam Chomsky has a good definition.  He refers to the mainstream media as:

the elite media, sometimes called the agenda-setting media because they are the ones with the big resources, they set the framework in which everyone else operates.

But the waters of this “stream” grow and contract, meaning the participants are in flux. Chomsky mentions The New York Times and CBS, these being the antithesis of alternative/dissenting media. But alternative media, through growth and popularity, inches towards the mainstream. Fox News, over time, starts to mirror The New York Times and CBS.

And then there’s social media. If social algorithms create the framework of what we read, does that make Facebook the new mainstream media?

Anything “Neo-“

Quick! What’s the difference between a patriot and a neo-patriot?

A millennial and a neo-millennial?

Racism and neo-racism?

“Neo” is a sort of highbrow pollution. It mucks up ordinary words, smogging your head with definitional doubt. You know what a fascist is. But a neo-facist? That’s like a fascist but something newer, something revived.

The prefix “neo” carves a thin slice out of common words, the intent being (for some) to separate the knows from the know-nots.

Next time you face neo-doubt, simply return the word with a different Greek prefix:

Speaker: I’m so tired of those neo-leftists.

You: What about those oxy-leftists? Or those pesky circum-conservatives?

You’ll bewilder them with your neo-linguistic skills. 


“This is a democracy!”

At one time or another, we’ve all heard it. It’s a power phrase, both in its inherent patriotism and in its majority-rules absolutism.

But is this really a democracy?

And are democracies deserving of such declarations?

Technically, a democracy equals majority rule. But our democratic republic, it’s a representative government placed in check by the people’s law, i.e., the Constitution.

As James Madison warned, democracies are flawed. He said:

A pure democracy … can admit no cure for the mischief of faction.

So the person who exclaims “This is a democracy!” really means “This is a government with nothing to stop the majority from sacrificing the minority!”


“Avid” … you’re not a bully; just annoying.

In social media, “avid” is like a prospector’s flag; people plant it in the digital soil to claim something – namely, their passion to the nth degree. You know, these people:

  • avid runners
  • avid gamers
  • avid hikers           
  • avid fishermen

But as I asked a few years ago:

How does an “avid” runner differ from a runner? Likewise, what’s the difference between a blogger and a “keen, eager, enthusiastic, ardent, passionate, zealous, hard-core, devoted, dedicated, wholehearted, earnest” (a/k/a “avid”) blogger?

“Avid” is akin to the word “passionate,” which is something displayed. When people claim a passion, they often sound over the top.

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