Writers are often instructed to avoid the use of vague or contentious words. Immediately following September 11, 2001, some editors even told journalists to eschew the word terrorist, as it is an ill-defined and pejorative term.

But what about modern? In conversation, people often use “modern” to mean “the way things are right now,” but in an historical sense the word is confusing. The modern era begins with the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, so “modern” starts in (roughly) the middle of the eighteenth century.

The problem is that people often use “modern” to mean “compared to some earlier time” in history, like when The New York Times said in 2005 that:

The design of the modern workplace is a product of a long-gone era. Enter in your 20’s, work at breakneck speed until your 50’s, supervise until your 60’s and then retire; that map is an artifact of a time when most workers (read: men) had support staff (read: women) back home.

Now the long-gone era to which the Times referred—say, the 1920s-1950s—was also “modern.” What the author meant was the contemporary workplace, or, better yet, the technological workplace where both employees and employers don’t expect long term commitments.

Usually the reader can figure this out through context. This is not, however, always the case. On Saturday, CNN reported that:

“We will take no lectures from John McCain, who is cynically running the sleaziest and least honorable campaign in modern presidential campaign history,” said Obama spokesman Bill Burton. “His discredited ads with disgusting lies are running all over the country today. He runs a campaign not worthy of the office he is seeking.”

Is Burton right? Well, it’s sort of hard to tell. While a case can be made for the existence of a postmodern presidential campaign, there is, strictly speaking, no such thing as the pre-modern or early modern presidential campaign—elected government being itself modern. One wonders to what Burton is comparing the McCain campaign. All American presidential elections have been modern affairs.

Of course, Burton meant to say that McCain’s campaign is “really sleazy,” and he was using “modern” in the colloquial sense of the word, meaning “involving recent techniques, methods, or ideas.” But when one looks at the history of the American presidential campaign, what recent techniques, methods, or ideas are up for discussion? Is Burton talking about the use of television? Is McCain’s the sleaziest and least honorable campaign since 1960’s Kennedy vs. Nixon? Or is Burton talking about, say, universal suffrage? Is this the sleaziest and least honorable campaign since 1920’s Harding vs. Cox? Or does he mean something else altogether?

Actually, he doesn’t really mean anything with the word “modern.” It’s filler. Without modern, the sentence becomes “John McCain, who is cynically running the sleaziest and least honorable campaign in presidential campaign history.” This statement is clearly false, considering some of the nasty rumors thrown around by those shadowy nineteenth-century presidential candidates. But if Burton were to define the statement further—“John McCain, who is cynically running the sleaziest and least honorable campaign since the presidential campaign of 1848”—this would require research, and leave the speaker open to error.

A fact check of Burton’s statement would be nice, but I’m not really sure what he means. Even in the colloquial sense of the term, meaning “recent,” where do you draw the line?

Modern is a word that’s sometimes appropriate, but more often it’s just a catch-all junk word used when one is unclear about definitions and trends. Or, as in the Burton case, when the speaker thinks a sentence needs a little more drama without much work.

Daniel Luzer is web editor of the Washington Monthly.