So far, we’ve talked about words that are almost forgotten but shouldn’t be, words that sound like they mean something else , and now it’s time to talk about words that haven’t been forgotten, but should be.
You know what I’m talking about—words that are either so overused they’ve become meaningless, or are just plain irritating.
One of the big challenges in talking about words that should be used less frequently is to limit the discussion to words and not discuss the many phrases out there that are overused and therefore rapidly becoming meaningless. Examples of overused, and under useful phrases are things like “at the end of the day,” or “having said that.” Both are euphemisms for “I don’t care what you think, I’m doing it my way.”
But we’re going to keep it simple and just talk about words. Here goes.
Basically—“Basic” means of, relating to, or forming the base or essence. So, for example, it is not possible for a building to be basically finished if it is still under construction, because the essence of a finished building is that it is no longer under construction. You see where I’m going with this? A good rule of thumb is to never use “basically” if you can’t substitute “totally.” While we’re on the subject, fundamentally is often overused in lieu of basically. Fundamentally should never be used unless it is followed by the word “flawed.”
Basically under construction not basically finished
Branding—I was under the impression that this is something done to cows and cowards. But no. It’s something that companies pay big money to consultants to improve. I decided that the word is overused when I read an article about how the New Zealand tourism industry was reacting to the Christchurch earthquake. “Inbound Tour Operators Council president Brian Henderson says some images of Christchurch would have to be taken out of the branding.”
Cerulean—Maybe it’s because of the recent Academy Awards and Grammys and BAFTAs, but I’ve come across this word much more than I should. It means blue, specifically the blue of the sky. So it’s been used lately to describe everyone’s eyes or gowns. It also crops up a lot in travel brochures to describe the ocean. I think it’s pretentious. Just call blue blue.
Innovative—It’s not this word’s fault that it is overused. Technically it means “new” so unless you are a hermit, you should encounter the innovative with some degree of regularity. Its use, however, should be curtailed when it is used incorrectly, i.e., to describe old things that marketing people want us to think are new. So while Lady Gaga might be the “new” Madonna, I’m not sure she is all that innovative.
Landscape—According to my dictionary, landscape means a picture representing a view of natural inland scenery, the art of depicting such scenery, the landforms in a region in the aggregate or the portion of territory that the eye can comprehend in a single view. I don’t have a problem if it’s used to describe a way of printing documents—after all, sometimes you need to adapt old words to describe new things. But unless you are using it to describe bushes and trees or paper orientation, I think it’s part of the overused words landscape. Like when a McDonald’s representative was quoted as describing happy meal toys from the Star Wars landscape. Unless they were talking about a landfill where they’d probably ended up.
Literally—I might say that I’m literally tired of hearing people overuse literally, but that would, literally, be an example of how the word is improperly used. Because if I were “literally tired” of something it would mean that energy was being drawn from me by its very existence. It is ironic that one of the meanings of literally is “free from exaggeration or embellishment,” because it has become a sort of means of verbal exaggeration. I was looking for an example of dubious use of the word and came across this wonderful sentence from the New Zealand Herald (which has a few other grammatical howlers as well): “The distinctive shape, light and shadow created by a well-chosen pendant can literally transform a room with the flick of a switch, from the bigger is better approach to clusters of naked bulbs.” I literally can’t decipher the literal meaning of that sentence.
Passionate and Sustainable—These words have been discussed before so we won’t talk about them now. But no list of overused words would be complete without them.
Pushback—This word really describes the process by which airplanes back away from the gate. A big tractor pushes them back, ergo, pushback. But for some reason it has become a politically correct euphemism for disagree. So when you tell your boss you want a raise because you work so hard he or she might say, “I’m going to pushback a little.” In other words, you don’t get a raise. Aside from the fact that it’s stupid, the other reason I don’t like this word is because of the mental image it creates. If you don’t agree with me, I’d rather you said, “you’re wrong, and I’ll tell you why your wrong,” instead of trying to get away from me.
Robust—Basically, and I’m using that word correctly, robust means strong, vigorous and healthy. It can also mean firm in purpose or strongly formed or constructed. Let’s face it, it’s a versatile word and that has led to its overuse. A recent scan through the daily paper discovered the following things described as robust: many aspects of the economy, a sports teams defence, a company’s recruiting process, a software company’s new product development process, the way the police responded to a problem and what space shuttle re-entry tiles need to be. As I say, a versatile word.
And last but not least: Awesome. Wouldn’t it be awesome if everything weren’t awesome?
I’m sure you have a few others you could add to the list, but basically, I think it would be literally awesome if we made the communication landscape more robust by pushing back when people with passion in their cerulean eyes try to convince us that they have an innovative branding idea.