The Write Stuff
By Alan Crawford,
While reporting a story on journalism as a good preparation for a career in public affairs (look for the results next month!), I stumbled onto a word I’d never read before and hope to never encounter again. That word is “precarity.” The writer, who seems to want to sound like an intellectual, refers to “the precarity of the journalism industry.” By this, he means that reporters by the dozens are getting laid off; there’s a lot of precariousness in that business.
A little mystified by the use of “precarity,” I traced it to its earliest uses, at least in the English-speaking world. Whether the word is used on other planets, I cannot say. I assumed it was a coinage from the academic world or the military bureaucracy, but apparently not. It appeared in The Catholic Worker, an earnest organ of Christian communitarianism, in 1952. Precarity, Dorothy Day wrote, “is an essential element of poverty.”
That is no doubt true. And it also seems true that the use of “precarity” carries an ideological component. Conditions in life can be precarious, but when this unpredictable nature is described as “precarity,” it implies exploitation, which affects “the whole of society.”
We’re to fight against this exploitation, which might explain the decision by the author of the piece on journalism to deploy this awkward and needless coinage. The layoffs in the news business aren’t just a consequence of the digital revolution and the resulting decline in print publishing. Journalism schools, the author says, are responding to the “precarity of the journalism industry by a cynical kind of repackaging. They’ve decided to sell the tumult as an exciting opportunity,” instead of “fighting for a better system.”
Well, maybe. One thing we can all do, in the meantime, is rally against the use of words that the public doesn’t understand. There’s probably no better example than a word that seems closely linked to precarity, which is “alterity.”
The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines alterity as the condition of being “other,” often as a result of race, gender or ethnicity. It refers (I love this) to “the ‘otherness’ of others.”
My best guess is that these -rity coinages come out of comp lit programs, which are usually, if misleadingly, housed in university “humanities” departments. This only proves how inhumane these humanities departments have become.
People whose jobs require them to communicate — that is, to write and speak in words that the rest of us understand — should be aware of fad words like these and avoid them. With that in mind, I offer these examples of made-up words that will probably crop up in the public affairs profession, if they have not already. Watch out for them!
- Reputarity: The condition, or lack thereof, of an organization that allows it to withstand criticism. The higher your reputarity, the less likely you will be damaged by attacks, especially when they are well founded and richly deserved.
- Crisisarity: The occurrence and severity of a problem. (As a fan of Wolf Blitzer’s The Situation Room, I have concluded that at any moment of the day, the entire world is in a permanent, though constantly shifting, condition of crisisarity. Related word: apocalypiticarity.)
- Preparadarity: The degree to which an organization is prepared to respond to a problem. This word is especially useful in times of hurricanarity, tornarity and tsunamarity.
Annoying Word of the Month: Ideation. Unfortunately, you will hear “ideation” used routinely these days in brainstorming sessions. All it means, really, is coming up with an idea, and it doesn’t even have to be a real idea. It can just be a random notion, offered to the group just so that no one will notice that you hadn’t thought of anything to contribute before you entered the room and sat down.
Just remember that if all you’ve got to add is some lame and fleeting thought, if you can dress it up in academic-sounding verbiage, your colleagues will be more likely to take it seriously, even if you don’t.
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