Words That Are More Exhausted Than These Puppies (Word Usage, 3 of 3)

A black-and-white image of three puppies snuggled up on their sides with their eyes closed.

In parts one and two of this word-usage series, I wrote about how word meaning changes and shared words it’s time to retire. Now let’s dig into some worn-out, tired, exhausted words, words that have become bereft of their actual meanings based on usage.

And not only are their original meanings divorced from their current meanings, they are used repeatedly to the point they become meaningless.

Here’s a brief list: awesome, literally, honestly, absolutely, unique, totally. I am guilty of overusing all of these. You?

Let’s talk about terrific for a moment. Terrible and terrific stem from the same root, “terr,” but terrible means really bad and terrific means really good.

Originally, both words meant terror-inducing. So what changed? Arika Okrent writes about terrific’s path “from fear to happy enthusiasm.” She also takes a look at awful and awesome.

This also made me think about words, such as bad and killer, that have followed terrific’s journey.

In an article about oversed words, Claire Fallon wrote, “The first pioneers to slangify awesome into a catchall positive term . . . were pushing the boundaries of language in order to create more vivid and colorful ways of speaking.”

At what point does word usage tip from pushing language’s boundaries into something tired, even cliché? And when does a particular usage begin to annoy you? And why?

I don’t know the answers, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

In the meantime, if you catch yourself writing lots of “really”s and “very”s, consider revising.