Everything Changes But You: The terrible overuse of cliched words

In recent weeks we have been treated to the soap opera of Meghan and Harry trying to quit the Royal Family, and all the breathless media coverage that has inspired.  Whether you think this is the most important thing ever, or you can’t quite believe that the spectacle of an affluent and privileged 30-something adult trying to resign from a job really merits all this attention, one word has been seared on everyone’s consciousness.  No, not ‘Megxit’.  The word of the month has been ‘transition’.  Which has made me wonder how it is that this perfectly innocuous, vaguely technical, word has gone from obscurity to overuse in just a few short years.

Because these days everything is about transition.  Once upon a time Harry and Meghan would simply have scaled back their Royal duties over a period of months; now they are in transition.  We can’t just say the UK is leaving the EU in a two-stage process, we have instead to say we are in the transition period.  Footballers no longer play the ball through the midfield from defence to attack, they transition through the lines.  Nobody leaves a company or a school or anything else: they make the transition from work to retirement, or from school to university, or from Company A to Company B.  Television shows do not shift from one scene to the next, they transition between them.  And Taylor Swift didn’t change her songwriting and singing style from country to pop, she experienced a transition between the two.

In other words, ‘transitions’ are going on everywhere.  And even worse is the verb, ‘to transition’.  I’m not even clear that this is really a verb but everyone is at it, transitioning from one role to another, transitioning through middle age or into retirement or from childhood to adulthood.  (NB: some people, obviously, transition from male to female or vice versa and for me that is one perfectly legitimate use of the word, since it is so widely associated with that process and experience.)

The sudden prevalence of ‘transition’ doesn’t really matter, yet it still irritates (at least, it bothers me).  The word is more than just overused: it is tired and hackneyed, and often used inaccurately.  Actually, it is more often not used wrongly but not used fully accurately to describe what actually is happening.  It would seem that people like to use it because it sounds a bit smarter than other, simpler, words like changing, altering, shifting, moving, progressing, proceeding, and many others.  And this is just one example of an ‘in vogue’ word just about killing off other, better, ones, when using the same buzzy word to describe lots and lots of different things is lazy and, frankly, boring.

So my plea is for new words to be found.  Or more accurately for old words to be re-found.  Perhaps this can be a lasting legacy of Megxit: that everyone transitions away (see what I did there?) from cliched, overworked, trendy words towards a fuller and more descriptive vocabulary.

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