Folks are figuratively sick of misused words

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / July 28, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

Last week I wrote a story about how the word “literally’’ has become misused, overused and far too hyperbolic for its own good. The reaction to this story figuratively blew me away, and I literally received hundreds of responses (sorry, that wasn’t very subtle of me). Most of these e-mails included pleas for me to write about other words and phrases that are regularly abused. Because this task would require a book, I decided to list a few key offenders here instead.

Several wrote to say they are fed up with the misuse and overuse of “iconic.’’ Loretta writes: “I had hoped that your example was going to be ‘iconic.’ Every time I turn around, the word is bandied about incorrectly. Not everything from Lady Gaga’s wardrobe selections to post 9/11 photographs can be characterized as ‘iconic.’ ’’

Jackie from Woburn rants, “My current favorite is ‘terrible tragedy,’ heard daily on the airwaves. Is there another kind of tragedy?’’

There were also several complaints about ‘‘moot.’’ Dave writes, “Where I work, we have a VP who was always saying that something was a ‘moot’ point when he thought it was irrelevant and/or settled. Even worse, he pronounced it ‘mute.’ ’’

A very cheeky Ruth writes, “I am continually bemused by the literally dozens of misuses of words. My pet peeve is reserved for ‘unique,’ especially as in ‘very unique,’ ‘totally unique,’ and my favorite, ‘sort of unique.’ The need to aggrandize a sensation or experience is the culprit here, as is plain old laziness, sloppy thinking, or perhaps just ignorance.’’

Jack says his linguistic pet peeve is “. . . a man or a couple proclaiming: ‘We’re pregnant.’ It drives me up a wall - figuratively. I still haven’t [figured] out how the male is going to complete his share of the delivery.’’

Judith asks that I go after the misuse of the word “nauseous’’ (the word most people intend to use is nauseated). While John asks that I clear up the confusion around decimate (original definition: “To select by lot and kill every tenth person of’’).

Alan gets a nod because he writes, “I literally adored your piece.’’ Well thanks, Alan. But he’s not so nice when it come to the use of “arguably.’’ “An overused and usually gratuitous word is ‘arguably.’ I think it’s cowardly. Why can’t the writer have the courage to say what he or she thinks, likes, or hates?’’

Laurie is peeved by the expression “Have a good one.’’ “A good what?’’ she wonders.

John has a whole arsenal of misused words stuck in his craw: “How about ‘notoriety’ used as ‘fame’? ‘Enormity’ used as ‘size’?’’ But then he continues: ‘How about words that are not so much misused as just plain overused? My candidate: ‘passion’ or ‘passionate.’ Everybody is supposed to be ‘passionate’ about their chosen activity, especially if it is anything to do with cooking. I like to turn out a nice dish but I can’t say I’m ‘passionate’ about bolognese!’’

Another John is amazed by the overuse of ‘amazing’: “When someone says, ‘She’s an amazing mom,’ I want to ask them what sets her apart from the other 2 billion in the world?’’

Peter writes, “Actually, can you please write an article about the misuse and overuse of the word ‘actually’?’’

Another Peter is annoyed by incredible and incredibly: “The root of those words is, literally (!), ‘not believable,’ so they would properly describe something that could not rationally be accepted or could not possibly be expected to occur.’’

And Liza thinks the whole ‘literally’ debate is literally silly: “Why not just let the word take on a life of its own in terms of jargon? Why keep things so literal?’’

Christopher Muther can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.