Monday, April 18, 2011


One of the things I love about language is its fluidity. A word's meaning today might be entirely different a hundred years from now. How exciting! Though I fancy myself something of a connoisseur des mots, I am by no means a pedant. I love colloquialisms, and truly feel that so long as an individual has effectively communicated his or her message, then juggling words around a little is just fine by me.

However, there are some misuses of language so heinous as to cause me to gnash my teeth and induce spikes in blood pressure. The first I'm lining up in front of the firing squad is a reference to the eponymous 1955 novel by Vladimir Nabokov. Just thinking about typing it makes me cringe. OK, here it is:


Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
-Nabokov, Lolita, chapter 1

You have read Lolita, haven't you? You know to whom the above words refer: A sexually promiscuous teeny-bopper who dresses provocatively and gets off on attracting older men.

At least, that's what you'd think if you got your cultural contexts from the media, who just looooove to turn Lolita into an asinine adjective, Lolita-esque. To wit:

Here: Meanwhile, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, along with fellow teen stars Mandy Moore and Jessica Simpson, were a new breed of barely legal pop princesses, prevailing against chart competition from older acts with their Lolita-esque ways.

And here: Evan Rachel Wood always seemed sort of intense to us, from the roles she chooses to play, to the fact that she dated Marilyn Manson for four years, to her occasional penchant for Lolita-esque attire. 

And here: Marketed as empowering to women, “Sucker Punch” proves to be just the opposite — Lolita-esque characters prancing about in tiny skirts and fishnets seem to be more about fetishism than empowerment.

Dearest Readers, I could copy and paste all day, but I trust you get the idea. In modern parlance, Lolita, or Lolita-esque, translates to a minor female who spends her days playing up her sexuality and angling after the sexual attention of men--especially older ones.

Heavy sigh. People....

Preach it, Inigo.

So, if Lolita wasn't the strumpet we're told she is, who is she? Her name is Dolores, not Lolita. Dolores Haze. A 12-year-old child who is kidnapped by a pedophile, constantly moved around the country to evade detection and prevent her escape, and serially molested over the course of several years.

Not quite as titillating as pop singers in short skirts, now is it?

In fact, if "Lolita" is going to be the encapsulation of an idea, it should be that of the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of an unrepentant predator. Framing Lolita as a seductress is classic victim blaming. A barely pubescent 12 year old child cannot, CANNOT, "seduce" an adult man.

Even though Dolores Haze is a fictional character, I can't help but feel sorry for her when she is so grossly misconstrued in the media, and her nickname is abused in the common tongue. Those who use 'Lolita' as a synonym for a sexually promiscuous young girl have utterly missed the point of the novel, and thus reveal their ignorance. And yet, the malapropism persists.

Dolores, I know who you are, and I vow never to hear the term 'Lolita' perverted by ignoramuses without feeling enraged on your behalf.

How about you, readers? Does 'Lolita' get your goat like it does mine? Are there other linguistic abuses that crush your will to live? Do tell!


  1. it bad that I completely agree with you about how people misuse Lolita (and I have corrected students before), but I still adore that book. I hate the subject, but I revel in how beautifully it is written.

    There are many of these...but my mind is drawing a blank. One particular pet peeve I have is when quotes are used wholly out of context for so long that they take on a new meaning and intention.

    Say, for example, "The Right to Keep and Bear Arms" as the rallying cry for all gun happy folks. They completely forget that the rest of it goes "...for a well regulated militia." Which adds a whole other dimension to it.

    There are lots of these with Shakespeare...where random quotes are plucked from their context...

    Ah, but my brain is sleeping. Keep at it word-muse...

  2. Oh, I adore the book, too! The subject matter is brutal, but I believe Nabokov absolutely seduces the reader into falling under Humbert's spell through the vehicle of his beautiful writing.

  3. Ding!! Yes. Lo is a dirty-faced kid with shoelaces untied. How unimpressive Nabokov's achievement would have been otherwise!

    My pet peeve misuse is "weary" for "wary." I think it's some kind of regionalism though, so I may have to forgive...

  4. Ugh--"Lolita" is a really depressing one.

    I've been thinking about this, the "linguistic abuse," as you call it (:D) that gets me most is in my professional world. Sarah already knows it, but I'll share:

    "Flushing out" for "fleshing out."

    People--you aren't FLUSHING ANYTHING OUT when you take an idea and break it into parts. Flesh. Flesh. Flesh. For the love of, it's flesh!

  5. That was not supposed to be a comma splice up there. I swear I had an "and" in that sentence! Gah! No edit! *dies*

  6. modifying unique in a positive way. The most unique or more unique being the big violators. BTW I agree the majesty of Lolita is that you can feel what Humbert feels.

  7. I abandoned the book.
    Erin ^ lacks literary skillz