Wednesday, October 16, 2013


by Elizabeth

I like to troll news websites. Okay, really, like many writers, I like to avoid writing, and one of my vices to enable this is to troll news websites. Please interpret the word "news" very broadly, by the way. My news is as likely to be about the current government debacle* as it is about Siamese twin Siamese cats or what celebrity uses Botox even though they don't admit it. Yeah, heavy thinker some days, I know.

So earlier this week, I was broadening my mind and I came across an article about how a talk show host and one of her guests "bravely went without makeup." I clicked on the link, watched, and it was true that the host looked clean-faced. The guest? Felt naked, she said. But here's the deal: she had on more makeup than I do on any given day, and by that I mean a day with makeup. She claimed it was a only hint of mascara and some lip gloss, but like the opposing political party, she was obviously telling a whopper.

But that's not even what bothered me about the whole deal, or what made me click on that particular non-news bit. What did? "Brave." They were brave to go without makeup, and that word wasn't used just the one time, either. It was used as an adjective, as an adverb, possibly as a verb. Brave.

So here's my problem: doing something that makes one insecure is not necessarily brave. Flying a bomber into a war zone is both insecure and an act of bravery; hitting the streets of Manhattan (or even facing a TV audience) sans an hour with a stylist might make a woman feel nervous, but brave? I'm going to have to say no.

I'm often troubled by the cheapening of our language, and the fact that the price of this is to diminish the instances when words are truly deserved. Is the sort of playground teasing that's gone on since before Laura Ingalls Wilder described it truly "bullying"? Is a bowl of mac and cheese really "amazing"? Am I really brave the two or three days a week I trudge out into the world barefaced, not so much as a lick of color on my lips or a single swipe of blush? Or should those words be reserved for the kid who gets tormented daily, pushed around and picked and punched; for the Grand Canyon and Great Wall of China; for the firefighters who head toward the blaze when every human instinct would scream to flee?

As writers, words are our currency. Most of us have spent a lot of time debating precisely the right word to use in a particular sentence, have agonized over which words get to stay and which must go. There's a reason for that, too: words matter. I really believe that. I believe in the power of words, placed in just the right order, with just the right rhythm, to entertain, move, inspire. And I worry that the cavalier slinging about of some really powerful words wrings their meaning and leaves them flaccid and nearly meaningless, or at least lacking the meaning they once had.

I'm hardly the first to lament this--I've probably already done so on this blog at some point--and I won't be the last. I have no power to stop it from happening. All I can do is to continue to choose my own words carefully, and hope that they still mean what I plan for them to mean in the context I place them.

A talk show host and her guest went without makeup to prove a point. One of them made the point pretty well, the other, not so much. Neither was brave, and neither a coward. The point, that what is real, and what takes effort, was made for me by both. Bravery, though, had nothing to do with it. Overcoming insecurity? Sure. Defying inhibition? Fair enough. But bravery? The only thing shooting at them was a camera, and the only risk they faced was ratings. If that's brave, then the pop-up promising a miracle to eliminate all excess body fat, is news.

*How's this for excellent? As I write this, the government is shut down, but if you are reading this in, say, 2017 (the internet is forever), it is almost assured that this comment will not be archaic, but simply differently applied. Did I say excellent? Reverse that.


  1. Nicely done, Elizabeth. I have to agree. Another word I think that gets thrown around too freely is 'hero.' I visited the site of the twin towers in 2004 and a sign on the fence surrounding the remaining rubble listed the names of all those who died. All were 'heroes.' I felt as though there should have been two lists--heroes (those first responders who risked their lives to save others) and victims (those who had the misfortune for being at work when the planes hit). To lump them together in one category, to me, diminished the 'heroic' efforts of those who rushed in, assuming the risk; those who were truly BRAVE.

    Another word that has lost its meaning is 'amazing.' Everything--from egg salad to a dog with an extra toe--is deemed amazing. Meh. I think not. Different, perhaps. Interesting, sometimes. But rarely 'amazing.'

  2. That's a good one, Pamela, yes: hero. I agree. There are absolutely heroes out there, but dying tragically does not transform someone into one. A hero is extraordinary--beyond ordinary. If making a good sandwich or surviving an earthquake makes someone a hero, then surely we need a new word for someone who plunges into a river to pluck out a drowning child. But we already have a good word for it if we don't waste it into meaninglessness.


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