15 Words That Should Be Avoided

Being a crossword enthusiast and an amateur etymologist, one of my biggest pet peeves is the ubiquity of meaningless and misused words. The English language usurps so many great words and idioms from other languages. It’s a shame when a single word gets bastardized into false meanings, kind of like a square peg belligerently smashed into a round hole.

Below are 15 words that are so overused, or used incorrectly, that they really don’t mean anything anymore. They’re catchall words for those with limited vocabularies. Working in marketing, I see several of these catchall words used in advertising copy and it drives me nuts.

  1. Moot
    Moot ≠ inarguable
    Most people think that an argument is “moot” when there’s no point in arguing about it. But moot actually means that the topic is in fact debatable. So just about everybody uses this word incorrectly.
  2. Decimated
    Decimated ≠ devastated
    Decimation was a punishment in the ancient Roman military whereby soldiers would number off and the first nine had to kill the tenth. So if a thing has been decimated, that technically means it’s lost 1/10th of its mass. In modern practice, decimate just means that a portion of something was destroyed. If a town is completely wiped out by a tornado, then it has been devastated—not merely “decimated.”
  3. Peruse
    Peruse ≠ skim
    Most people seem to think that “peruse” means to quickly skim over something. If you ask, “did you hear about [BIG NEWS STORY]?” Someone might reply, “I perused an article about it yesterday,” meaning that they glanced over something on the topic. But if they actually perused it, then they would have paid very careful attention to each and every word in the article. The word is used correctly when lawyers ask their clients to “peruse this contract,” meaning to consider it very carefully.
  4. Sustainable
    Sustainable ≠ better than the status quo
    I’d love to hear people explain what they think sustainability means before they’re allowed to incorporate the term into their branding. How many times have you been to a restaurant that boasts the use of sustainable ingredients? Aren’t all farms sustainable if they can replant? How many companies install a few solar panels on their property and then claim that they’re “committed to sustainability?” It’s ridiculous.
  5. Literally
    Literally ≠ added emphasis
    Not long ago, a girl was telling a story about how hard she laughed at something or other. She followed it up with, “I literally died laughing.” Literally?
  6. Ironically
    Ironically ≠ coincidentally
    If you moved from Oregon to New York only to fall in love with another native Oregonian, that’s not ironic. It’s a coincidence. Pretty much nothing in Alanis Morissette’s song, Ironic, is actually ironic.
  7. Racist
    Racist ≠ disagrees with my sociopolitics
    I wish social activists and political pundits had to first explain how they define racism before they were allowed to throw the term “racist” around with reckless abandon.
  8. Artisanal
    Artisanal ≠ premium brand
    How many grocery stores use the word artisanal to market their premium brands? Was the $12 loaf of “artisanal” sourdough made by an artisan skilled in the ways of traditional baking, or is it just the same old sourdough with some flour and cracked grains thrown on top? Hand-blown glass is artisanal. Marinara sauce bottled by Kraft is not.
  9. Organic
    Organic ≠ pesticide-free, healthier
    I’m specifically referring to the way the term organic is used to connote healthfulness, or at least lower risk. If you wash or peel your produce, then an organic apple is no different whatsoever than than a non-organic one. Slapping “organic” on the label has less to do with provenance than fashion.
  10. Epic
    Epic ≠ memorable
    The Trojan War was an epic clash of civilizations. Odysseus’ trip home from it was an epic journey. The look of embarrassment on someone’s face might be memorable, but it’s not exactly “epic.”
  11. Ethnic
    Ethnic ≠ non-WASP culture
    I’ve had someone ask me, “do you like ethnic food?” The questioner was baffled when I responded, “ethnic to what?”
  12. Vintage
    Vintage ≠ old
    Forget the fact that this is a term used for describing wine. Even when it’s used purely to describe antiquated items or practices, it’s only be applicable to things that have enduring appeal. A beat up, old couch isn’t “vintage” unless it’s still in demand. Otherwise, it’s just a beat up, old couch.
  13. Tolerance
    Tolerance ≠ endorsement
    I get so tired of hearing people complain that others are “intolerant.” Almost every time, the people they’re complaining about are perfectly tolerant in the sense that they aren’t actively obstructing anything. To disagree is not to be intolerant—it’s to tolerate without endorsement.
  14. Hilarious
    Hilarious ≠ mildly amusing
    How many times have you heard someone (especially in writing) describe something as “hilarious?” Then, when they tell you what actually happened, you realize that hilarity did not ensue. Why can’t people just use words “amusing,” “entertaining,” or “funny” to describe something? Why does it have to be exaggerated to “hilarious?” If there wasn’t thunderous laughter, then it was just funny. That’s okay.
  15. Whatnot
    Whatnot ≠ ?
    What is this word supposed to mean? I think people use “whatnot” as a discourse device because they think it’s the boardroom iteration of yada yada yada or blah blah blah.

Bonus words and clichés

    Most people say this when they mean “regardless.” Irregardless means “without lack of regard,” which is a roundabout way of saying “with regard.” So irregardless is not a substitute for regardless at all.

    It is what it is
    I think people employ this cliché because they think it sounds profound. It doesn’t. You can glean as much information from this saying as you would if someone told you, “well, blue is blue.” If people really mean, “there’s no use complaining about it,” then they should just say that.

    I could care less
    People say this when they don’t care at all about something. But they’re actually implying that they care at least enough to have room to care less, meaning that they do in fact care. It makes no sense.

Random observations

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15 Words That Should Be Avoided
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