Trite Academic Words

Graduate students and professors, being human, are subject to trends.  In the seventies they wore bell-bottoms.  In the eighties they did aerobics.  In the nineties they might even have bought that CD of Gregorian chants everyone pretended to enjoy (you know who you are).  And just like clothes, exercise, and music, a particular set of words is currently en vogue among scholars.  In this posting, we’ll talk about worn-out words–terms so overused that they’ll make your readers want to take an eraser to the dictionary.

Social Sciences

Elide: How about plain old omit?  Suppress?  Exclude?  I would also like to point out that this is sometimes misused as a synonym for “elude” or “evade,” when in fact in its literal sense it refers to the act of crossing something out.

Toward: This perfectly serviceable adjective is sometimes used in titles to indicate that the paper or book is groping toward some sweeping change to the field.  Used exclusively by grand masters and grandiose younglings, this is best left to the former.

Unpack: Alternatives include dissect, unravel, explicate, even the phrase “more closely examine.”

Parse: See “unpack.”


Anything with parentheses: For example, “(re)imagining.”  There is absolutely nothing that will make you look pretentious more quickly than this.  Did someone make a rule against repetition when I wasn’t looking?  Would using “imagining and reimagining” really be so bad?  The down-to-earth alternative has kind of a ring to it, in my opinion, and what’s more, just think how much easier it would be to read aloud at a conference.

Dilate: Sometimes encountered in works of philosophy, as in, “In this section, I will dilate upon how Wittgenstein was a complete idiot.”  I suggest examine, discuss, or explore.

Problematize: In an informal survey of academics who also happen to be my friends, this word was particularly unpopular.  The difficulty is that there doesn’t seem to be a single good synonym that doesn’t have that whiff of jargon to it as well.  Complicate?  Undermine?  The best alternate I can come up with is “question,” but your input in the comments section would be extremely welcome.


4 thoughts on “Trite Academic Words

  1. I vote for “complicate”. Or “make more challenging”. Or even the hoity-toity “obfuscate”. How ’bout just plain old “muddy up”. But then, that’s perhaps to plebian.

  2. Hey, T. Do you want me to let you know when there is an error in your posting (such as “again” instead of “against” below) so you can fix it before a future employer sees it? Or should I just let it ride?


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