News & Politics

Loathsome Words of the Day: -Themed and -Based

This restaurant has a strong Greek theme. Photograph via iStock.

loathsome words logoEight to ten years ago, I started noticing two words increasingly creeping into writing. In the last five or so, they’ve become insidious: -themed and -based.

Now, that’s a minimalist tweet. (It was one of my first #loathsomewords.)

Tiki-themed decor. A Halloween-themed magazine cover. A Greek-themed menu. A JFK-themed ballet.

First, the grammarian’s argument: Themed makes little sense because theme is a noun, and by definition a participle is a verb form. A cabineted kitchen? A coffeed morning? Creative, but no. (Off the top of my head, I can think of only one acceptable noun turned participle: windowed, as in a windowed office.) I’m well aware that themed is in the dictionary. But theme as a verb is definitely not.

My greater complaint is that -themed is so frequently extraneous. When it does serve a purpose, it clangs with unoriginality. Take the hypothetical “Greek-themed menu”: I get it—this restaurant doesn’t serve textbook Greek fare; it’s just inspired by the cuisine. So say that. Greek-inspired is a great alternative. Or perhaps -style, -oriented, -focused, -inflected, -accented. In other cases, something like -colored, -tinted, or -rooted might do the job.

Then there’s -based.

A writer living mainly in Washington is a Washington writer—even if she travels a lot for work, even if her clients are in New York or Los Angeles, even if she has vacation homes in Provence and Aruba. Leaving -based off her descriptor doesn’t mean she’s unable to leave the city or is interested only in local topics.

These days, rum cocktails are no longer rum cocktails—they’re rum-based cocktails. But rum cocktail has never meant rum is the only ingredient (it wouldn’t be a cocktail if that were true), only that it’s the main, or base, ingredient.

A recent Vanity Fair article talked about a lawyer who “was never interested in doing a reality-based series.” I believe that’s also known as a reality series. (Reality series is still one of the great oxymorons of our time—dressing it up as reality-based doesn’t make it less so.)

What used to be called, say, a Chicago company—meaning one headquartered in Chicago, which it has always meant—is now almost universally referred to as a Chicago-based company. God forbid anyone should infer that it has no offices anywhere else in the world.

This verbal add-on has spread with a persistence that seems to blind writers and readers to the fact that, as with -themed, at least half the time it simply isn’t necessary—plus, cumulatively, it can make for tedious reading.

Next time you use one of these, ask yourself: Can I get away without it? For a long time, more often than not, we did.

Senior Managing Editor

Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor; from 1999 to 2007, he was a features editor. In another lifetime, he was assistant managing editor. Somewhere in the middle, he was managing editor of Common Boundary magazine and senior editor at the Center for Public Integrity. His personal essays have been cited three times among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays. He teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.