The Necessity of a Word That's Basically Useless

Several readers (well, two anyway) have kindly written to me after I nobly attempted to make the wall-to-wall use of ''hopefully'' a little less popular. They ask (nay, plead) if I would not now aim my poniard at ''basically.'' Oh, yes! - gladly - willingly - but, in all truth, not too hopefully.

The trouble is that ''basically'' is one of those word traps into which even the most fastidiously laconic of us unwittingly trip. It is a trap because it serves a purpose, particularly when we are faced with a question we should, but do not, know the answer to. Its purpose is to play for time.

You know the sort of thing. You are an expert on, let us say, ornithology. You have given lectures, conducted graduate field trips of hushed reverence through Highland peat bogs in search of the capercaillie, written much-quoted books and articles on Bewick's wren and the gnatcatcher subfamily, and then, like a bolt from the blue, the five-year-old nephew of your publisher asks you where the main habitat for Tichodroma muraria is. His teacher says she wants to know.

Well, everybody is allowed one tiny lapse of memory or minuscule dark corner of ignorance, but knowing precisely when to admit to it can be tricky.

What you want to reply is: ''No such bird exists.'' But you have an edgy suspicion that it does, so what you say instead is: ''Yes, well, basically, that species is now confined ... ah ... basically to ... basically ... um....'' and you hope that if you can contrive to say absolutely nothing over a longish period, interspersing this nothing-speak with as many ''basicallys'' as you can muster, some fortunate distraction like a thunderstorm or someone dropping buttered toast on the carpet - anything - may occur and both the question and your feeble attempt not to answer it may be instantly and forever forgotten.

Which is probably why we are stuck with ''basically.'' We really do need some words so degraded as to have lost any meaning at all, with which we can say as little as possible, or less, at the greatest feasible length. Not only are such non-words necessary, it is our positive duty to employ them with unremitting frequency because their continued lack of significance crucially depends upon their mindless overexposure.

And - basically - ''basically'' is, among the higher ranks of such verbal vacuities, one of the very best. (Though ''really'' and ''actually'' also have their avid supporters.)

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