The Fascinating Origins of the Banished Word List
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“As great minds have the faculty of saying a great deal in a few words, so lesser minds have a talent of talking much, and saying nothing.” — Francois de la Rochefoucauld
Odds are that if you’re a fellow word nerd, you’ve already seen the news of the 2022 Banished Words List.
I’ll save you the trouble of looking them up. They are:
At the end of the day
That being said
Asking for a friend
You’re on mute
Before I get into the wonderful history of this list, I’m going to try to use all of these words in a few sentences.
“Wait, what? No worries, you’re on mute. That being said, let’s circle back and do a deep dive on the new normal. At the end of the day, I’m just asking for a friend.”
But First, Some History
I don’t leave much to chance in this newsletter. That is, I make very deliberate decisions about content. But, thanks to the speed at which the internet works, these may be lost on the casual reader.
At the intersection of banishment and Sherlock Holmes is a Michigan public relations legend W.T. “Bill” Rabe, the creator of the Banished Words List. Or more officially, the annual List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-Use, Over-Use, and General Uselessness.
Like me, Bill was a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, the literary society dedicated to Sherlock Holmes; he received his investiture (a fancy word for a nickname) in 1955, as “Colonel Warburton’s Madness,” after the name of one of an unrecorded case of Sherlock Holmes.
And you’re about to see why, thanks to the generous spirit of Bill’s son John, longtime host of Off-Ramp on KPCC and now the production and promotions director there.
Interview with John Rabe
🕓 John, thank you for agreeing to answer some questions for us. Tell us a little about your father’s career.
WT “Bill” Rabe was chief of publicity for the University of Detroit from some time in the 1950s to 1969, when he became head of “college relations” for Lake Superior State College (LSSC) — later LSSU, from which he retired in 1989.
He started doing public relations work for Mackinac Island and Grand Hotel in1969. Grand Hotel paid him a retainer to do PR about the hotel specifically and Mackinac Island in general, figuring what was good for the Island was good for the Grand. And Harry Ryba, the Fudge King, also contributed in-kind … generally an apartment for my dad and visiting journalists.
He also did tons of freelance journalism (to help pay for six kids). That included theatre reviews in Detroit, and AP and UPI photo stringing in the Soo [shorthand for Sault Ste. Marie -ed.]. A week didn’t go by when he didn’t send off at least one photo.
My dad was a classic old-school PR man. He wouldn’t clobber you over the head with the many virtues of his clients — although he never did crisis communications or worked for entities that didn’t have many virtues — but instead invented events that allowed his clients to appear in the background.
Stamp Out the Beatles Society (SOBS) involved clean-cut U-of-D students in a mock protest of the Mop Tops; the annual Word Banishment list was “sponsored” by Lake State; Grand Hotel’s immense front porch was the natural site for strolling on World Sauntering Day.
And since he wasn’t overtly and annoyingly boosting a client, disc jockeys, columnists, and editors loved having him on or using his material. Which was also, by the way, often released on slow news days, like January 1st, July 4th, etc.
🕓 Lake Superior State University is Michigan's smallest university, with an enrollment of just over 2,000. It must have been even tinier in 1971, when your father joined as director of publicity. What made him take that job and how did he stand out?
He moved to the Soo and took the job in 1969. I would guess the new job in Sault Ste Marie (pop. 15,000 in 1970) offered better money (living is cheap in the Soo), more job autonomy, a safer environment, and a chance to build a brand from scratch.
At that time, Lake Superior State College of Michigan Tech was breaking away from Michigan Tech and establishing itself as a liberal arts college, and it needed someone to build that brand.
So he began the Woods Runner magazine, with fiction and poetry. (I believe he was the founder. He certainly edited it during his time at the college). He began the Unicorn Hunters and issued Unicorn Questing Licenses to all and sundry, a whimsical document about finding one’s bliss.
He started the annual Snowman Burning, which marks the first day of spring – vitally important in the far North – with poetry readings and the ritual burning of a giant snowman.
He initiated the annual Stone Skipping Competition on Mackinac Island, which like Word Banishment and the Snowman Burning, continues to this day.
My dad did lots of non-glamorous work for LSSC as well. He taught journalism, key lining, photojournalism, and he (and my mom) edited and got published the college catalog.
He came up with an entire legend and nomenclature that attracted media from around the world, including CBS’s Charles Kuralt. Like all the others, these events and traditions are accessible and play.
I think that’s the key. People feel free to take part in them, to be a part of the game, to add to it. My dad never positioned himself as the boss of these; he was the facilitator. It was a genius PR move because not only did he create a good thing, but its participants did a ton of the work of spreading the word.
🕓 Were there any stunts that didn't stick that you remember vividly?
We don’t talk about “Guano for Grandmas” or “Tell Paul Harvey to Read Faster Day.” For obvious reasons.
🕓 Given the PR stunts he orchestrated, it seems as if your dad had a great sense of humor. What was he like?
Oh yes, he had a sense of humor. His work expresses it perfectly … which is probably why he accomplished so much. He had found the field that fit his personality.
My dad was brilliant, judgey, thick-headed, loving, selfish, brusque, domineering, generous, a huge pain in the ass, unbearably bossy, and good-hearted. Stories are legion of him bursting into anyone’s office and commandeering a phone and typewriter so he could get out a story he was working on. (Tigers radio broadcaster Paul Carey told me one such story.)
He is still annoying to me in that I don’t think my dad ever spit-balled ideas. He just did whatever came into his head, and thereby accomplished more than most people ever do. It makes me feel lazy and unaccomplished. To be clear, he always let us know how much he loved us and that he was proud of us. He never compared his accomplishments with ours.
When I was an 18-year-old disc jockey at a crappy station in the Soo, working afternoon “drive,” on cold nights he’d come pick me up when my shift ended and would listen to me in the car as he waited … even though I sucked.
🕓 What do you think he would think of the legacy he created, with some of his traditions still going strong today?
He’d be proud of it, but I don’t ever recall him talking about his successes. He was always focused on the thing he was doing, and the thing after that.
There are so many more fun facts about Bill Rabe, like creating Hush Records, whose big hit was an original cast recording of “An Evening with Marcel Marceau.” This and other background information about this dynamo with a typewriter are available in this biographical piece from the BSI Archival History website in 2011.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.