Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Curse of the Bolster


Here is a picture of a pile of bolsters.




As you can see, bolsters are large pillows.  The noun "bolster," is thought to have originated early in the 15th century.  Sometime in the same period, the word also began to be used as a verb.

Here is a description of the verb form of "bolster" from the Online Etymological Dictionary:

bolster (v.) mid-15c.  (implied in bolstered), "propped up, made to bulge" (originally of a woman's breasts), from bolster (n).  Figurative sense is from c. 1500, on the notion of "to support with a cushion, prop up."

As I read the above, I can imagine one use for the word "bolster" as a verb.

Say I went into the lingerie department at Saks and was considering several brassieres for purchase.  The saleswoman might say to me, "This padded model would bolster your flat bustline."  Her comment might not lead to a sale, but the phrasing would be appropriate.

Now let me pose a less appropriate use of the word.

Say I went to my bank and asked my banker for advice and she said, "You need to put another $10,000 a year into your 401k to bolster your retirement account."

This doesn't make any sense.  I don't want my retirement account to be "propped up." I want it to be filled with money or, failing that, bars of gold bullion.

This year journalists are making the same mistake the banker did in my last example.

As I watched CNN during the early weeks of the Flight 370 investigation, I heard the word constantly. As near as I can tell, the network now is infested with bolsters.  Someone should notify Wolf Blitzer.

And there are many other examples.

Several weeks ago, bolster was the solution to a clue in a respectable Sunday crossword.  The clue made no mention of padding or large pillows.

The other day I encountered these two headlines in reputable newspapers:

      "Unions Call for Federal Funds to Help Bolster Detroit Pensions"

      "Boston Police to Bolster Presence Before Marathon"

The next morning came another:

      "Shares Close Mixed to End a Strong Week That Was Bolstered by Earnings"

And these:

      "Immigrants in City Bolster Housing Values"

      "Michael Pineda ... bolstered his comeback story on Thursday ...."

      "Cities ... are ... considering programs ... such as bolstering programs for public education...."

Think about it -- are these articles talking about "padding" or "propping up?"  Wouldn't a normal verb like "strengthen" or "reinforce" or "help" or "boost" or "improve" work much better?

Readers who saw my February 17 post  ("Words Only Journalists Use: Bolster") will recall that I observed a recent increase in journalists' use of the verb "bolster."  Since that time, it has continued to spread like wildfire.

I try to note these occurrences, but I am just one person.  I am not prepared to inspect the daily press like an obsessed, punctilious scold.  I have a life, after all, with books to read and dinner to cook.

In fact, journalists' use of the verb form of "bolster" ebbs and flows with time.  My impression is that, at a certain high point, editors and writers look at each other and say,  "Maybe we've gone a bit too far with this silly word." Then the use of "bolster" declines rapidly, disappearing for a number of years.

My hope is that we are near another such inflection point.


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