John McWhorter, associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University comments on the growing sophistication (or devolution) of English language among Americans in the article of the New York Times (April 5, 2014) under the title of “Like, Degrading the language? No way.

He picks up prolific uses of the words, “like,” “totally,” “because X” in daily discourse and “lol” in texting as the noteworthy trends of the shift of language. He says:

“Linguistically, underneath the distraction of incivility, America is taking a page from Dale Carnegie’s classic “How to win friends and influence people.” There’s, overall, an awareness of the states of minds of others in much of what is typically regarded as Clearasil-scented grammatical sloth.”

As I understand Clearasil is a pimple treatment medicine primarily directed to high-teen users, does “Clearasil-scented grammatical sloth” mean immature usage of language? What does it mean?

We say “It smells like Mentholatum” in Japanese in referring to the person / thing emitting an alien (not necessarily unpleasant) smell.

Is “Clearasil-scented” a popular phrase, or the author’s particular trope? Can we apply “Clearasil-scented” to other words, like “look, fashion, view, remarks, and infatuation”?

  • Hey, can you give the exact Japanese for that mentholatum saying? メンソレータム匂い?メンソレータムの香り?
    – Kaz
    Jul 7, 2014 at 19:32
  • @Kaz. We call メンソレータムの匂い(nioi)。香り(kaori) is good smell, I mean fragrance. 匂い and 臭い (nioi - phoneticaly the ame with 匂い) is neutral. But when 臭い is read or pronounced "kusa,i" it means bad smell, odor. Jul 7, 2014 at 21:34
  • You might want to check out your countryman’s bonus question here, in case you know the answer.
    – tchrist
    Jul 8, 2014 at 4:17
  • tchrist. I posted the answer to Shiga. Jul 8, 2014 at 8:39

2 Answers 2


Yes, you have it. 'Clearasil-scented' is intended to mean teenagers, and their 'grammatical sloth' their laziness in holding to standards.

To address your particular questions, no, it is not about an alien, medication-like smell. It is a figure of speech, metonymy, clearasil being used by teenagers mostly.

It is not a set-phrase at all. If anyone else used it, it would probably be considered esthetic plagiarism. Meaning it wouldn't really be plagiarism, but if used without quotes, totally uncool ('esthetic plagiarism' is the first time that phrase has been used, but you can use it if you like, just give me credit the first time).

  • 15
    I would add that clearasil-scented contains a note of condescension or dismissiveness towards the young people in question simply (and the article suggests, unfairly) due to the fact that they are young.
    – dangph
    Jul 7, 2014 at 0:35
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    @YoichiOishi "Esthetic plagiarism" is admired in Literary Criticism, where it is called Influence. But don't try it with esthetic works whose copyright is owned by large corporations! :) Jul 7, 2014 at 0:55
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    I prefer esthetic plaggiarism; it sounds like a form of elective periodontal surgery. Jul 7, 2014 at 2:23
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    @DaveGordon I think you got the direction of the editorial wrong. He gave examples of youthful neologisms that many people find annoying yet are in some sense signs of politeness. "We may not speak with the butter-toned exchanges of the characters on “Downton Abbey,” but in substance our speech is in many ways more civilized."
    – Mitch
    Jul 7, 2014 at 12:15
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    Yoichi-san: McWhorter is a clever writer. 'butter-toned' is also him being metaphorical. To explain, the American view of the British accent is that they all sound 'better than us', all fancy and upper-crust. And butter (I suppose, I'm not familiar with the metaphor) when melted is smooth and creamy, like I also suppose McWhorter, being American, thinks of the British accent.
    – Mitch
    Jul 7, 2014 at 18:55

"Is “Clearasil-scented” a popular phrase?" NO, the author invented it on the spot for this sentence. It is scathingly bitter.

NOTE interestingly the product Clearasil does not have much smell, so it's actually not really that ingenious a construction.

NOTE, it's relatively common to talk dismissively about teenagers / kids as smelling like "bubble gum". (You can google around and find constructions about that.)

Almost certainly the writer had that in mind but wanted to choose something more bitter.

does “Clearasil-scented grammatical sloth” mean immature usage of language?

NO -- it simply means BAD use of language, by teenagers.

Note that (as I've mentioned to you many times on this forum), in all the English-speaking countries I know of, we're going through a thing where the quality of language is decreasing, and staggeringly so.

The author seems to particularly be attacking young people with regard to this problem; IMO the author is wrong -- all age groups are equally at fault.

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    Right. It was made up. A Google of "Clearasil-scented" shows 20K results, but add -sloth and it drops to 65, leading me to believe most results were echos of this one article and the comments it led to. Jul 7, 2014 at 16:27
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    You've misread the author entirely here Joe. He is defending young people from the accusation that their language features exhibit "grammatical sloth". Instead, McWhorter argues, these features are evidence of "an awareness of the states of minds of others". The 'Clearasil" comment is a echoic satirical dig at the scathing attitude of other people towards young people's language. Jul 10, 2014 at 13:02

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