Every December, publications start coming out with scads of lists. Best books of the year. Worst movies of the year. Most shocking celebrity break-ups of the year. Lists upon lists upon lists, defining the past 12 months. One list that often pops up: most overused words of the year.
Usually, lists of most overused words focus on new, trendy words that have seen a sudden surge in usage; twerk, selfie, and hashtag are commonly cited examples. These neologisms are admittedly irritating, and we’d likely all be pleased to hear them less frequently. “Overuse” is the wrong complaint, however. We really are talking about selfies and hashtags alarmingly often these days, so invoking the words themselves makes complete sense. The real scourge of overused words is far less obvious.
Literally. Honestly. Absolutely. Our everyday language has become littered with such terms, so nondescript and ubiquitous that we barely even register their presence. Unique, a word meaning “unlike anything else,” has become so common that we now modify it with very or so to emphasize that it really is unlike anything else, rather than just somewhat different from the norm. (That quirky wall shelf shaped like a mustache you got at Urban Outfitters is NOT “so unique,” for the record. Thousands of other Urban Outfitters shoppers have the exact same one.)
Few of us haven’t fallen prey to the ease of peppering our conversations -- and even our writing -- with awesomes and totallys. But why does this happen? How do these words, which once had such specific uses, become catchall exclamations and intensifiers employed in nearly every chat?
Like obnoxious trends in so many areas -- mullet dresses, obviously Auto-Tuned vocals -- these bastardizations of once-normal words arose through the power of human creativity. Once every other song on the Top 40 station reverberates with nasal Auto-Tune, it no longer seems groundbreaking and hip, but the first artists to use it, like Cher, were thinking outside the box, finding beauty in a new and bizarre tool. The first pioneers to slangify awesome into a catchall positive term (as opposed to its formal definition, “extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear”) were pushing the boundaries of language in order to create more vivid and colorful ways of speaking.
As Mental Floss pointed out recently, slang usage often results in words changing meaning entirely -- terrific, once used to mean “terror-inducing,” was used ironically to mean “intensely good,” and the new definition eventually spread throughout society, overtaking the old meaning. No one uses terrific in the old sense anymore. The original slang creators were being playful and clever, but the ultimate effect is quite the opposite; an interesting, precise word has now become a bland, broad one, indistinguishable from “awesome,” “fantastic,” and “great.”
Writers often beseech us to stop employing overused duds like actually and awesome. Ragan.com even includes a list of alternatives in their anti-awesome screed. Conversation would be more lively if people started throwing out groovy, magnificent, and shazam in place of the omnipresent options like awesome and amazing, but the reality is that language doesn’t tend to work that way. If a movement was made to abandon awesome, most of us would simply gravitate to another easy, catch-all option. Maybe someday we’ll all be saying everything from a delicious cookie to a heart-wrenching documentary is stupendous. And soon, that word will be just as annoying as awesome ever was.
So let’s not go overboard and start banning words. Instead, take our list of overused words as a reminder that sometimes, the words we say don’t mean much. A cookie, to you, may just be awesome, but don’t some occasions deserve more than that? If you really want to express a heartfelt enthusiasm for your best friend’s dream job offer, don’t mindlessly say that it’s awesome, or even add on some cheap emphasis by saying totally awesome (totally technically means "completely, in every part," but here it would just be a vague note of emphasis). Maybe your friend’s accomplishment is awe-inspiring, or thrilling, or well-deserved, or warms the cockles of your heart. Some thoughts are worth expressing as meaningfully as possible.
Here are 12 words that have been so overused they really don’t mean anything anymore:
- literally: Originally meant "in a literal or strict sense," but is used as a more general intensifier for things that are not strictly true. Because of this, "in a figurative sense," the exact opposite of the original meaning, has now been added to the dictionary as a definition for literally.
- unique: Originally meant "unlike anything else," but is used to mean "different, to some degree, from the standard or the norm."
- awesome: Originally meant "causing feelings of fear or wonder," but is used as a general, positive descriptor like "great" or "cool."
- amazing: Originally meant "causing overwhelming surprise or astonishment," but is used as a general, positive descriptor like "great" or "cool."
- totally: Originally meant "completely, in every part," but is now used as a general intensifier, much like "really."
- basically: Originally meant "essentially" or "fundamentally," but is now used as general verbal filler.
- incredible: Originally meant "impossible to believe," but is now used as a general, positive descriptor like "great" or "cool."
- really: Originally meant "actually true," but is now used frequently as a general intensifier.
- very: Meaning "to a high degree," we all just need to stop using it in every other sentence.
- honestly: Originally meant "in an honest and genuine manner," but is now often used as general verbal filler.
- absolutely: Originally meant "in a complete and total manner," but is now used as a general intensifier.
- unbelievable: Originally meant "impossible to believe," but is now used as a general, positive descriptor.
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