Um ain’t a wordI looked up the word “um” in the dictionary and guess what? It’s there. That’s disconcerting. Why?
By: Kevin Holten, The Dickinson Press
I looked up the word “um” in the dictionary and guess what? It’s there.
That’s disconcerting. Why? Because I recently went to a conference in Kansas City and way too many speakers used way too many “ums” in the middle, beginning and at end of sentences and nearly as many “you knows.”
Now these were public relations people from big colleges around the country who are paid to communicate for a living and should know better but apparently they don’t. My high school speech teacher would have had a stroke, three heart attacks, and a seizure and then needed three soothing chocolate bars for rehabilitation had she been there.
So I have to assume that the dictionary has lowered its standards and, like letting women into men’s locker rooms, stiffs into government jobs, tenderfoots onto working ranches and Texans into North Dakota, they’ll let anyone in.
You see, officially the definition of the word “um” is: A representation of a common sound made when hesitating in speech. That probably gives us some insight into how words like “burp” also made their way into the dictionary.
Of course, that’s bad enough but then I looked to see if the word “um” is also listed in the thesaurus and I’m sad to say, it is.
For those of you who don’t know what a thesaurus is, it’s a reference work that lists words grouped together according to similarity of meaning, and the words that the thesaurus considers similar in meaning to “um” are ah, ahem, alas, egad, er, huh, oh, oops, psst and ugh.
Of course, of that list, “um” is pretty unintelligent sounding until you put it next to the word “huh” and then “huh” clearly wins the grand prize doesn’t it? Huh?
I must have counted 3,265,122 “ums” during three days of conferencing, billowing from the mouths of people from Indiana, Michigan, New Mexico, Chicago, Pennsylvania and every other state you can imagine, confirming that “um” is not a regional word like “uffda” for example, which is also in the dictionary but has not made its way into the thesaurus. Probably because the thesaurus is prejudiced against we Scandinavian types; gee it’s tough to be a minority.
Why is this so irritating to me? Because, like weeds in a wheat field and flies on a cake, the word “um” can potentially destroy the English language as we know it.
For example, Abe Lincoln’s line from the Gettysburg Address, “Um, four score and seven years ago, um, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new, um, nation,” doesn’t sound quite as profound with “um” splattered here and there does it?
Nor does “Um, ask not what your country can do for you, um, ask what you can do for your country.”
Now if you’ve ever watched the liberal Democrats debate the Labour Party in the British House of Commons on cable television you know that the word “um” hasn’t been used in British history since the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, in present day Belgium. Even then it was probably used by Napoleon, who apparently sold it to the United States along with the Great Plains as part of the Louisiana Purchase and we’ve been over using it ever since as if we needed to get our money’s worth.
Thus I am beginning a personal campaign to rid America of the word “um” forever and will be talking to our legislative lawmakers, urging them to make it illegal to use the word “um” in any context, be it at the race track, in the middle of a corn field, during a political fundraiser or at a wedding toast.
This is important because the word “um” is giving Americans a bad reputation, affecting how the rest of the world views us and might even be affecting our economy.
Plus, being caught using it is nearly as embarrassing as someone having to introduce their son to long-lost visiting relatives and he’s got tattoos doodled all over his body; up his arms, over his shoulders, around his waist and choking his neck, as though he was a chalkboard scribbled on by an absent minded professor; so very unimpressive.
Therefore, be conscious of your use of the words um, ah, er and huh in your sentences, lest you want people to assume that your IQ is 50 points lower than what it actually is. Because you only get one chance to make a good first impression.
Then again, as Henrik Ibsen, the 19th century Norwegian playwright, theater director and poet once said, “A thousand words will not leave so deep an impression as one good deed.”
Holten is a freelance columnist and cartoonist from Dickinson.