Eight 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.
Loathsome word of the day: -themed. #loathsomewords
— Bill O'Sullivan (@billmatto) February 19, 2016
Now, that’s a minimalist tweet. (It was one of my first #loathsomewords.)
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.
Loathsome appendage: -based. DC-based author=DC author (& that's just 1 example). Spread of -based in last 10 yrs=maddening. #loathsomewords
— Bill O'Sullivan (@billmatto) July 26, 2016
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.