All Too Susceptible| July 12, 2022
IWORMS, my handy acronym for “Intentionally Insular Word Replacement or Misplacement Syndrome”
I'M not an epidemiologist or sociologist, so I don’t have the proper credentials to classify new and unusual syndromes. But during my years working at this magazine, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon. If I could coin a title for it, I would call it IWORMS — a short and squirmy name for the uncomfortable reality lived by us frum writers who love language, love writing, love to communicate — and sometimes lack the education, information, or exposure to get our words exactly right.
All writers can make mistakes, using wrong or inappropriate words at times (just try googling “stanch vs. staunch” or “averse vs. adverse”). But only a rare subset is uniquely susceptible to IWORMS, which is my handy acronym for “Intentionally Insular Word Replacement or Misplacement Syndrome.”
As the name denotes, this syndrome plagues “intentionally insular” writers. And here at Mishpacha you’ll find many such writers — people who consciously choose to limit their exposure to the wider world of current literature, journalism, and lingo.
You might say that intentionally insular writers are on a diet. We’re always hungry. Constantly seeking that story, that quote, that beautifully crafted feature, or stark account that will sate our inner artist. But we’re careful, too, about what we consume — because we know that some offerings will feed parts of ourselves we prefer not to nourish.
We know that the world out there is increasingly crude and lewd, that society’s very definition of morality has shifted drastically over the years. We’re aware that standard political discourse now includes words and phrases previously taboo in polite company. That politics and celebrity, news and culture, have grown so tightly enmeshed that it’s increasingly difficult to maintain a divider between top headlines and tabloid fare. And that so much of current literature — even moving portraits of human frailties and struggle and victories — draws on themes and utilizes language that makes us feel stained, exposed, unclean.
Here’s the problem: The same writers who intentionally filter or avoid those problematic offerings are an ambitious bunch. We aim for quality and work hard to achieve it. We read how-to books and attend courses to better our writing. We experiment with new techniques and analyze different styles and genres. We exchange articles or stories that made us suck in our breath and say “whoa,” and then together, we try to figure out the mechanics of really good journalism.
We want to have it all — the kosher and therefore limited literary diet, along with the rich literary output. And we want to produce a magazine that provides it all — the high spiritual bar along with the high journalistic standards.
I think that’s why we sometimes fall prey to IWORMS. Intentionally Insular as we are, it’s only natural that we’re vulnerable to a syndrome of Word Replacement or Misplacement. The syndrome is evident when our writers use words like “raucous” to describe a kol Torah. I know it struck me when I used a word I thought to be an innocent description for a predilection, and a fellow editor told me about its second, indelicate meaning. It happened when a freelancer used a bombastic idiom that had inappropriate connotations. And it happens so often when drafting cover lines — a catchy phrase with the perfect ring ends up being the name of a less-than-clean secular movie or song — that I’ve started googling cover lines just as a precaution.
What’s going to save us from IWORMS? What will keep this magazine safe from this creeping, cunning syndrome? For some of us, it’s a widely read and educated friend who serves as a beta reader and trusted critic. For many of us, it’s a team of supremely talented, knowledgeable editors and proofreaders who possess far-reaching familiarity with the linguistic layers beneath so many terms.
But at the end of the day, we are always going to be vulnerable. This constant dance of ours — trying to be mindful of our exposure, while trying to put out something rich, varied, and current — means that as we write and refine and edit, we also keep praying. We know how easy it is to get things wrong, we know how susceptible we are to misused or misplaced words, and we know that only a Higher Force can ensure that our good intentions don’t get mangled or misrepresented on their convoluted journey from our screens, to the printing press, to the intentionally insulated environment of your homes.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 919.
Oops! We could not locate your form.