Words I Never Want to See Misused Again, Anywhere, Ever

Maybe it’s the weather. It’s been really hot here, and when it’s not hot, it’s rainy. In any case, I’m feeling kind of cranky lately. So when I ran across this article about words we all might be misusing, I was in the mood to: a) shake my head at the misguided masses, and b) share it far and wide.

And then I read it again and realized that some of the words the blogger had flagged weren’t really misused. Instead, the word’s definition had changed over the years/decades/eons. That happens quite often. I mean, you aren’t going to call a happy person “gay” these days, right? Not unless you know some additional details about them, anyway – details that may or may not have anything to do about their current emotional state.

Anyway, this realization made me crankier. So I came up with my own list of words whose misuse ought to be expunged from the zeitgeist.

Decimate: This does not mean to wipe out everything. What it means is to eliminate one in ten. See the first three letters? “Dec-”? What words do they remind you of? Decimal, maybe? Decade? And what do those things have in common? They have something to do with the number ten. So why would “decimate” mean to kill off everybody? (Yes, I know, December also starts with “dec-”. That’s because it used to be the tenth month, before the Romans shoved a couple of new months in at the start of the year to make the calendar balance out better.)

Literally: Jim Devitt touched on this in an earlier post. But it bears repeating, because my head literally exploded the last time I saw this word misused. Well, no, actually, it didn’t. See? My head is still here, attached to my neck. And that’s the problem with this word. “Literally” means word-for-word: “It literally says right here, and I quote….” But somehow it has come to be used as a substitute for “figuratively” in expressions where the speaker wants extra emphasis. This mistake has been going on for at least a hundred years. But you can be the change! If you want an “-ly” word for emphasis and you’re tempted to reach for “literally,” try “virtually.” It sounds hip and modern, and you’ll be in the ballpark, meaning-wise.

Orientate: Seriously? Who thought it would be a good idea to reverse-engineer a new verb out of “orientation”? The root verb of “orientation,” ladies and gentlemen, is “to orient.” You use a map, a compass, or a GPS to orient yourself. You cannot orientate anybody to anything because “orientate” IS NOT A WORD.

Awesome: Okay, I admit it, I overuse this word. Lately, it’s the first thing out of my mouth when I want to express approval. But using it as slang devalues its impact. The first syllable in “awesome,” after all, is “awe” – which is a mixture of respect, wonder, and dread. “Awful” is another word that comes from “awe.” Now, “awe” is the sort of thing that makes you get down on your knees and beg to be allowed to continue living. So “awesome” really shouldn’t be the first word that springs to your lips when the guy at McDonald’s tells you that your fries are fresh from the fryer. (True story.)

Tell you what: I’ll cut back my use of “awesome” if you guys will work with me on “decimate,” “literally,” and “orientate.” Deal?

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

51 thoughts on “Words I Never Want to See Misused Again, Anywhere, Ever”

  1. This is an awesome article that that shows how they have literally decimated the meaning of some words. Getting people to orientate themselves will be hard though,

  2. Great post. It brought back the memory of the International Airport in Glasgow when I purchase some gum at a kiosk with the exact change. ‘Brilliant’ the shop assistant said. Until then I hadn’t realized how little it took to be so praised. Of course word collisions across oceans are an entirely different, and intimidating game of words. Anyway, I heard the word brilliant way too many times on that trip. So many that it rather lost its glow.

    1. Yup, “brilliant” is another overused word. I’m starting to hear it stateside — and sometimes I’ve heard it shortened to “brill.” “Brill”? Really??

  3. I’ve recently begun using literally… But I think it’s in a true sense. In March 2012 I was literally hit by an 18-wheel truck and the side effects are still causing me problems even if I look and sound fine.

    I could be wrong… One of the side effects is “minor” brain damage affecting cognitive functions.

    Her nauseous example is one that I think is outdated.

    Orientate? Seriously (yeah I found like an echo) 40 years ago when I was dropped in the woods with a compass the goal was to orient myself & find the way back to camp. I cheated & found the way (oh would that be orientated?) to the highway and got us a ride in a pick-up… Camp advisors were not amused.

    1. I agree with you on “nauseous” — technically she’s right, but I think the definition has changed with usage.

      If you really got whacked by a truck, then “literally” is correct. (Poor you!)

  4. Holy/wholly/Holey crap! I use the word awesome all the time! What am I supposed to use now? *grumbles*

      1. Brilliant is impressive but intimidating as well as overwhelming. Perhaps I will stick with excellent, wondrous, or amazing. It is going to be a daunting task. 🙁

  5. Not a misused word, but I hate when utilize is substituted for use. Some words enter the vernacular through misuse, like normalcy–it wasn’t a word until President Warren G. Harding used it in a speech. Recently, someone invented “conversate” instead of using converse. Maybe she thought I’d mistake converse for a pair of sneakers. *shrugs*

    1. Somebody told me about hearing “conversate” the other day! I thought they were making it up!

      And YES on “utilize”. And thank you for mentioning President Harding, Joan — now I know who to blame for “normalcy”. 🙂

  6. Awesome . . . er terrific use of words, Lynne. I added the article to my Writing Help etc board on Pinterest. I think IndiesUnlimited is the best, coolest, and most informative place on the internet for writers, readers, and book overs in general. . I love adding their articles (like yours) and interviews to my Pinterest boards.

  7. Decimate is tricky, because most people associate it with devastate. I think that’s one that could be let go, as far as nit-picking is concerned I (does nit-picking have a hyphen?) The other word I hate, hate, hate seeing is ‘Preventative’.

    1. I guess “decimate” and “devastate” sound similar enough that they could get confused. I just hate to see a word with such a specific meaning get watered down, though. There’s kind of a big difference between a community being devastated by a tornado (3/4, perhaps, of the homes gone) and decimated by one (just one house in ten is kindling).

      But oh, you are so right on “preventative”! I guess it sounds more official than “preventive” with that extra syllable in there. 😉

  8. Oh, now you’ve gotten me started. “Completely destroyed.” First thing I learned in journalism school. “Destroyed” means gone, finished, the whole magilla. Nothing complete or incomplete about it. And it doesn’t just rain anymore. We have “rain events.” There’s something to get cranky about.

    1. The weather guys have a lot of language butchering to answer for.

      And YES on “completely destroyed.” Another of those words is “controversial.” I once argued with a network news anchor who wanted to put “very controversial” in his copy. Come on — either there’s a controversy over the thing or there isn’t.

  9. I hate to say this, but ‘orientate’ is used…the Oxford diccie does state that it’s chiefly British usage. That said, I personally can’t get to grips with it. Until I actually found it in the dictionary, I kept correcting everyone! My pet hate is/was ‘mentalist’. The Brits use it to mean bonkers, lunatic, but it’s a recent use of the word. A mentalist is a mindreader. If I hear anyone say it to mean someone’s mad, I want to scream at them.

    1. Hear, hear. The Amazing Kreskin was a mentalist. A crazy person is just crazy. 😉

      So BRITS are to blame for “orientate”?? I might have known… 😉

  10. I’m still going to use awesome. But, I’m stuck in my ways 🙂 I have a hard enough time thinking of words to use when I speak. Now, writing? Not so much…

    Great post, Lynne.

    1. The good thing about being a writer is that you have plenty of time to think of all those comebacks that elude you in the moment. 😀 Thanks, DV!

  11. While I agree with most of the post and comments, I’m going to throw one of your own quotes back at you, Lynne: “And then I read it again and realized that some of the words the blogger had flagged weren’t really misused. Instead, the word’s definition had changed over the years/decades/eons.” My argument is that “decimate” fits into that category.

    According to the Oxford American Dictionary, “Historically, the meaning of the word decimate is ‘kill one in every ten of (a group of people).’ This sense has been superseded by the later, more general sense ‘kill or destroy a large percentage or part of,’ as in ‘the virus has decimated the population.’ Some traditionalists argue that this and other later senses are incorrect, but it is clear that these extended senses are now part of standard English….”

    1. This is a thought provoking post, Lynne.
      I agree, M.P. My Webster’s New World Dictionary and Thesaurus defines decimate as “to destroy or kill a large part of.” I agree that ‘awesome’ and now ‘amazing’ are over-used. I remember a professor telling us that his pet peeve was the incorrect use of ‘fantastic.’ Personally, I am over people yelling “hash tag” before everything they say on TV. When I trained people on phone usage this was called the pound sign.
      Stephen Fry made a you-tube video about language that I love.

      1. Well, the dictionaries are just *wrong* about “decimate”, darn it! LOL!

        And yes on the “pound sign”, Lois. 🙂 I would think # only becomes a hashtag when words follow it. Grammar Girl had a post this week, I think, about the importance of spaces between words, and what happens when you take them out — sometimes with unfortunate results. 😉

        1. I find it helps to distinguish between a word’s historical meaning and its usage meaning. It’s actually a positive that the language is alive and continues to evolve, even when the occasional evolution literally (sorry, couldn’t resist) sets our teeth on edge. This reminds me of a longstanding fight between word nerds: the battle between prescriptivism and descriptivism. Whichever philosophy is correct perhaps matters less than my discovery that adopting the latter is easier on your blood pressure. 😉

  12. There are so many things, in common use, in the spoken languages today that annoy the hell out of me; I’ll single out just a few and give them a rating on my cringeometer (yes I know it’s not a real word):

    • The common use of ‘like’ in places it has no business being: ‘I was like just walking along.’ (3/10)
    • ‘Very’ has already been mentioned, and I don’t so much mind its use (for emphasis on occasion) but repeating it: ‘he was very, very angry’ is just so superfluous. (4/10)
    • The use of ‘this’ inappropriately: ‘There was this guy hanging around.’ (4/10)
    • The shortening of words, like the above mentioned ‘bril’ annoys me; people lose the original word completely, and it’s getting more and more prevalent with the use of text speak (6/10).
    • Acronyms (7/10)
    • The current trend for Public Speakers to begin a sentence with ‘So’. (8/10)

    I could go on but I won’t, it is your post after all, Lynne; and it is an excellent, thought provoking article.

  13. And…and…and…what about ‘like’ and ‘you know’ that’s dropped in all the time. Aaaaaargh! Oh, and why do people say ‘I’ve got to go and do something’. Why not ‘I’ve got to do the washing up, write a letter, walk the dog’. Why have they got to go and do it? It’s obvious they’ve got ‘to go’ somewhere else, like, you know.

    1. Obviously what/who they have to go do is private, Ms. Speight, gaaah!
      (Sorry, I blame the margarita I just had with dinner! Don’t tell BigAl I was here, okay?)

  14. Ouch. I think I’m guilty of literally… and awesome, but I’m innocent of orientate! Commiserations on the weather. Hate summer.

  15. I’ve got one to add to the list, Lynne: conversate. Omigosh! I heard it used once quite awhile ago and dismissed it as a single aberration. Then I heard it again the other day. I repeat…omigosh! Thank goodness most people would rather converse.

  16. I always used to get particularly cross over the confusion between “I” and “me”, as in, “My friend and me…”

    I now become a raging fury at the use (particularly in the UK, but it’s coming your way…) of “myself” instead of “I”, as in, “My friend and myself…” A related sin is, “How’s yourself?” It’s as if the reflexive is the only option.

    Danger: exploding human !!!!

  17. The one that surprised me was decimate. I was not aware of the true meaning of that world. I had to go and look it up in my OED and sure enough:
    decimate, v.


    [f. L. decimā-re to take the tenth, f. decim-us tenth: see -ate3. Cf. F. décimer (16th c.).]

    †1.1 To exact a tenth or a tithe from; to tax to the amount of one-tenth. Obs. In Eng. Hist., see decimation 1.

       1656 in Blount Glossogr.    1657 Major-Gen. Desbrowe Sp. in Parlt. 7 Jan., Not one man was decimated but who had acted or spoken against the present government.    1667 Dryden Wild Gallant ii. i, I have heard you are as poor as a decimated Cavalier.    1670 Penn Lib. Consc. Debated Wks. 1726 I. 447 The insatiable Appetites of a decimating Clergy.    1738 Neal Hist. Purit. IV. 96 That all who had been in arms for the king‥should be decimated; that is pay a tenth part of their estates.    a 1845 [see decimated].

    †2.2 To divide into tenths, divide decimally. Obs.

       1749 Smethurst in Phil. Trans. XLVI. 22 The Chinese‥are so happy as to have their Parts of an Integer in their Coins, &c. decimated.

    3.3 Milit. To select by lot and put to death one in every ten of (a body of soldiers guilty of mutiny or other crime): a practice in the ancient Roman army, sometimes followed in later times.

       1600 J. Dymmok Treat. Ireland (1843) 42 All‥were by a martiall courte condemned to dye, which sentence was yet mittigated by the Lord Lieutenants mercy, by which they were onely decimated by lott.    1651 Reliq. Wotton. 30 In Ireland‥he [Earl of Essex] decimated certain troops that ran away, renewing a peece of the Roman Discipline.    1720 Ozell Vertot’s Rom. Rep. I. iii. 185 Appius decimated, that is, put every Tenth Man to death among the Soldiers.    1840 Napier Penins. War VI. xxii. v. 293 The soldiers could not be decimated until captured.    1855 Macaulay Hist. Eng. IV. 577 Who is to determine whether it be or be not necessary‥to decimate a large body of mutineers?

    4.4 transf. a.4.a To kill, destroy, or remove one in every ten of. b.4.b rhetorically or loosely. To destroy or remove a large proportion of; to subject to severe loss, slaughter, or mortality.

       1663 J. Spencer Prodigies (1665) 385 The‥Lord‥sometimes decimates a multitude of offenders, and discovers in the personal sufferings of a few what all deserve.    1812 W. Taylor in Monthly Rev. LXXIX. 181 An expurgatory index, pointing out the papers which it would be fatiguing to peruse, and thus decimating the contents into legibility.    1848 C. Brontë Let. in Mrs. Gaskell Life 276 Typhus fever decimated the school periodically.    1875 Lyell Princ. Geol. II. iii. xlii. 466 The whole animal Creation has been decimated again and again.    1877 Field Killarney to Golden Horn 340 This conscription weighs very heavily on the Mussulmen‥who are thus decimated from year to year.    1883 L. Oliphant Haifa (1887) 76 Cholera‥was then decimating the country.

    Hence ˈdecimated, ˈdecimating ppl. adjs.

       1661 Middleton Mayor of Q. Pref., Now whether this magistrate fear’d the decimating times.    1667, 1670 [see 1].    a 1845 Syd. Smith Wks. (1850) 688 The decimated person.

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