Conservation Minnesota

Banishing the Word “Pristine”

At the start of every year, Michigan’s Lake Superior State University releases a tongue-in-cheek list of words and terms to be banished from the English language on the grounds that they are misused, overused, or useless.  The 2013 list includes “fiscal cliff,” “double down” and “bucket list.”

The environmental lexicon has a few candidates for banishment, and candidate Number One is “pristine.”  It’s clearly misused, overused and useless.

Misused:  A recent news report declared Lake Superior to be the “most pristine” of the Great Lakes. That’s like saying something is the “most perfect.”  It’s either perfect or not, pristine or not.  There are no degrees of perfect or pristine.  “Pristine” means pure.

Overused:  Far too often, a writer trying to communicate the wonder of a natural scene or resource will fall back on “pristine” as a lazy substitute for more precise description. In every panorama is something singular – the shading of leaves, grasses or birds, the topography, the web of life. That’s what merits communication.

Useless: there is plenty of beauty in the natural world.  Minnesota contains a wealth of it: monumental cliffs along the North Shore; expansive open spaces in the southwest; gawky white pelicans, dignified moose and venerable sturgeon.  None of it is pristine in the sense the word is usually intended – untouched by the supposedly corrupting hand of civilization.  We have touched it all, for better or worse.

When it comes to environmental discourse, let’s purely place “pristine” on the junk heap.  And let’s celebrate the glory of nature with fresh language in 2013.

About Dave Dempsey

Dave Dempsey
Dave Dempsey is a resident of Rosemount and author of three books on environmental subjects. He formerly served as Conservation Minnesota's communications director.
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John Helland says:

Dave – I agree with the first three words that Lake Superior State identifies as certainly overused, the first almost ad nauseum. However, “pristine” can be a very useful term to describe certain wilderness – like old growth tree stands – or scientific and natural areas still in their original condition.
My definition of the word means “unspoiled”, or “clean and fresh as if new.” Pristine areas still exist in various reaches of the great northland. I’d hate to see the word vanish to the trash heap.