A cliche is a terrible thing to waste

clicheOne of the best quirks about journalists, at least on the print side of things, is our general obsession with words. Even if we're not all "Testy Copy Editors," we still love to debate word choice, grammar and sentence construction.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote that the National Conference of Editorial Writers recently discussed words and phrases that have outlived their usefulness, if they ever were useful:

Believing, as we do, that cliches should be avoided like the plague and obfuscation always should be eschewed, we hereby present the results of the NCEW's survey, along with selected commentary by various NCEW savants:

-- Issues and challenges. "No one has problems any more," said one editor. "We have 'issues.' Likewise, we have 'challenges.'. . . Why isn't that a 'problem'?"

-- Faith-based. "Almost 100 percent of the time this phrase is used, the user means 'religious,' and they should just suck it up and use the real term."

I am guilty of using the term "faith-based," I'm sure, but it is true that it replaces "religious" without adding any clarity. I'd actually add "religious tradition" to the list of phrases that rarely adds meaning.

Another word I've used, in a limited context, is "broadening." As in, "Those wacky evangelicals who used to only care about distasteful issues, such as abortion and the stability of the family, are now broadening out to more respectable issues, such as debt relief and AIDS prevention."

Religion reporter Peter Smith at the Louisville Courier-Journal takes note of the addition to the lexicon:

It's that time again when various groups try to highlight the "Word of the Year" -- some term that captures the spirit of the times. For example, the American Dialect Society is taking nominations, with "change," "bailout" and "maverick" in the lead, while a list with a different angle seeks to banish such overused terms as "green," "carbon footprint" and, well, "bailout" and "maverick."

But for the realm of faith and works, I'd say the term of the year is broadening, as in "broadening of the evangelical agenda."

He goes on to note where the phrase has appeared -- from the Christian Science Monitor to U.S. News & World Report.

I haven't liked the use of the word mostly because I'm not sure I'm convinced that Christians of any stripe are moving toward a place of caring about poverty or sickness. We have thousands of years of history -- and accompanying hospitals, schools and institutions of charity -- that indicate they've in fact been leaders in that regard.

My other problem with the term is that broadening implies that other evangelicals are narrow or that evangelicals were narrow. Even if an individual feels that way, I'm not sure if objective journalists should use such value-laden terms to describe a group. Likewise, we wouldn't want to describe the modern evangelical political agenda as a "watering down" of their core beliefs -- even if we thought that -- because it's not our place to make such a judgment.

The folks on the New York Times Credibility Committee wrote it best years ago:

Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them. As one reporter put it, words like moderate or centrist inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme. We often apply religious fundamentalists, another loaded term, to political activists who would describe themselves as Christian conservatives.

So I'm still working out the "broadening" term and, as I mentioned, I have used the phrase when it seemed to be the best and most charitable way to describe the political goals of the Rev. Rick Warren or of Richard Cizik.

So what do you think about "faith-based," "religious tradition" and "broadening"? Are they useful? Are they cliched? Are there other religion beat words, terms or cliches that, uh, chap your hide?

And what about some of the other big buzzwords of recent years -- "moderate Muslim," "the emergent church," "progressive Christians," and the like? Which should be on the chopping block, and why?

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