90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
Here and Now with Robin Young
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
Thursday, December 6, 2012

Words We ‘Literally’ Want Out Of The Dictionary

“Literally” must be somewhere in this pile of refrigerator magnet words. (Calamity Meg/Flickr)

Recently we asked listeners what words they were tired of and wanted removed from the dictionary.

The use of “literally” in phrases such as “I literally laughed my head off!” got a number of votes. One of our listeners hated the use of the word “impact” as a verb, as in “the debate impacted the vote.”

We asked Steve Kleinedler, executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary for his thoughts.

He told Here & Now’s Robin Young that the dictionary often addresses those complaints in their usage notes, but in the case of  the word impact, “it has a longstanding, decades, decades long use as a verb… Language changes over time, and this is one where the ship has sailed.”

There’s a reason dictionaries can be reluctant to remove words, once they’re on the books, Steve said. Back in the late ’90s, he suggested the American Heritage Dictionary remove what appeared to be an obsolete word relating to punch card technology: chad.

“After some discussion, the editors realized it’s still used in certain jurisdictions – in voting booths, for example – and based on that, we thought, ‘Okay, we’ll keep it in,’” Steve said. “And then a year later, of course, in 2000, the word chad rose to the top of everyone’s consciousness in a very large way. So it’s an example of, while even if we think something might be on its way out, you really want to take caution before you start deleting things willy nilly.”

The catchphrases that people are tired of, such as “YOLO,” standing for “you only live once,” tend not to make it into the dictionary in the first place, Steve said, since editors feel that they are ephemeral and might die out.

Steve also told us about the words the American Heritage Dictionary added this year. Several came from the food world, including the condiment “Sriracha.”


  • Steve Kleinedler, executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • J__o__h__n

    You’re Only A Stupid Catchphrase Once

    • Ken Cound

      You may be the analogy of a cliche, but tomorrow you are the metaphor of a spring day.

  • dialyn

    My problem is less with actual words but awkward phrasing that has crept into the language.  I read recently that “…Romney had been disappeared from the G.O.P.  roster of influential politicians.” What kind of sentence structure is that?  Why didn’t they just write: “Romney has disappeared from….”  The alternative they used is clumsy, at best.    

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003000884786 Navin R Johnson

       Disappeared and disappear have two different meanings and your less clumsy sentence doesn’t have the same meaning as the original.  They are using the transitive form of “disappeared” which implies someone made Romney disappear.

      • dialyn

         I bow to your superior knowledge. I am not an expert on the topic, but it still  hits my ear as being unnecessarily awkward, and the difference between the two meanings seems so slight as to not make it necessary to waltz around the normal meaning of “disappear.”  Clearly I’m the one in the wrong and my ear needs to be educated.  I apologize for my ignorance but not for my willingness to learn something new. Thank you.

        • http://profile.yahoo.com/AGFS2ZJCPQR3757NKXIC4VMDDA Eric

           Touche!  Who needs people defending crummy English in the first place?  To Navin.  To my knowledge, the transitive form of the verb “to disappear” doesn’t make sense, and in fact, doesn’t exist.

    • Ken Cound

      A person can be disappeared and reappeared by a force outside of themselves. To be the subject of a disappearing act. Nobody actually disappears though.

  • Maggie Unsworth

    Why is it that your guest used the word “nuther”? As in “a whole nuther”.  Shouldn’t the executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary say “another whole”?  Otherwise (and maybe even because) a fun segment.  Best,  Maggie

    • Steve Kleinedler

      I was surprised to hear myself say that as well! Speaking off-the-cuff and presenting prepared speechs are two very different tasks. (Do note, however, that the American Heritage Dictionary does in fact enter “nother” a word used in informal contexts.)

      • nanders

        I remember hearing that and deciding that I would never use the American Heritage due to its acquiescence to the dumbing down of America. “Nother” is simply a grammatical error.

        • Todd Sandrock

          [shrug] I think, as Steve noted, the relaxed context of the interview is everything. Is it a grammatical error? Yes. Is it common in relaxed spoken conversation. Sounds like. I find in my line of work that there is a perfect time and place for “ain’t” and I so use it. Should you base your use of this dictionary based on an interview? Your call.

          • nanders

            No, not on the interview – I meant that I had heard that AH dictionary had adopted the word “nother” last year -as in “a whole nother thing.”  While I understand the evolution of language, this just seems like a blatant disregard for simple grammatical correctness.

          • contemptus mundi

            Dude, lighten up. If you refuse to use every product that blantantly disregards correct grammar, simply uses incorrect grammar either to attract attention, identify with a specific social group, then stay off the internet, start throwing out 90% of the music you listen to, stop consuming processed foods and find a nice cottage in the woods of Montana where you can start writing your manifesto.

            In lieu of that, you could simply choose stop being a wanker, put on your big boy pants and open your mind to the richness of the English language. But, that is – as the idiom goes – a whole nother kettle of fish.

          • Zendegy

            Haha! Well said, contemptus mundi. People get their panties in a twist waaayyyy too easily!

      • Diane

        This was his reply to my same question: “A whole nother” is a very common idiom. It’s undoubtedly a phrase that I heard a lot when I was growing up, because it’s pretty ingrained in my speech, too. 
        Robin is such a great host and our chat was very relaxed, so it’s not surprising that a few informal turns of phrase ended up in our conversation.
        Thank you for listening!

  • Dave Wible

    Let’s ban “takeaway” or “the takeaway”……way overdone this year!

  • borealbabe

    I’m thoroughly tired of “just sayin’ ” and think it’s unbelievably annoying.

    • borealbabe

       I’m also tired of “going forward.”

  • portlandish

    I found it interesting that the executive editor of the AH Dictionary used the phrase “a whole ‘nother” during the interview today.  I hear this used frequently, but clearly it’s not proper grammar.  Let’s stop putting the word ‘whole’ in the middle of the word ‘another’ already!

    • Diane

      I just asked him the same question. This was his reply: “A whole nother” is a very common idiom. It’s undoubtedly a phrase that I heard a lot when I was growing up, because it’s pretty ingrained in my speech, too. 
      Robin is such a great host and our chat was very relaxed, so it’s not surprising that a few informal turns of phrase ended up in our conversation.
      Thank you for listening!

  • harley petty

    Amazing… too many thing are amazing.

  • Mapboi

    Awsome – if I never hear this word again it will be too soon. . .

  • Sigrid Brudie

    I’m tired of the phrase “at the end of the day.”

  • Ashley Webster

    Impactful. Not a word.

  • http://twitter.com/siraguso Frank C. Siraguso

    Dang, I just caught the end of the show. But I did hear Steve Kleindler mention Sriracha (a fave) and coppacolla. He used the American pronunciation. Just so you won’t feel like a jamoke if you happen to be in my old ‘hood, or anyplace with a Sicilian enclave, we pronounce it (I’m not making this up) “gobbagolla.” And it’s great on crusty bread!

  • Jgreene4870

    Thank you for bringing attention to the overuse of “actually”. Six yers ago , my three year old niece,
    when I complimented her bracelet, said “Actuwee, it is a neck-wace.”. And I thought, “hmmmmm, we may be using “actually” too much if the three year olds are saying it. My kids and I now have a running count of “actuallys” that we hear.

    • Jgreene4870

      And “amazing” and “like”…..,

  • Gretchen

    I am increasingly aware of the use of ” there is”,” there’s”, “it is”, and “it’s” followed by a plural noun as in the clause “… where there isn’t a lot of Italian neighborhoods….” said by your guest Steve Kleindler. 

    • Steve Kleinedler

      Thanks for listening! I think this was just a regular speech error on my part. 

      Sometimes you start a complex sentence and get lost in it. When you try to find your way out, often you can do that elegantly; other times, not so much. In this case, I think I was originally going to say something different and I switched it up mid-sentence. This happens not infrequently when speaking off-the-cuff in interviews (in contrast to prepared speeches).

      Linguists have fun picking apart slips of the tongue, trying to figure out what went wrong. That sentence will probably end up being an example in a syntax class next term.

  • Rossinmt

    “Very real” is used a lot and doesn’t add a thing in any context.
    “Quite unique” and “very unique” grate on my sensibilities, since “unique” means “one of a kind.”  Very one of a kind?  Quite one of a kind?

  • Rob Shivers

    I suppose this seem out of context as to word deletion but the use of “got” as linguistic emphasis is a “pet peeve” and grates on my hearing every time it’s used…it is usually blurred into “gotta” and follows a contraction of the word “have” such as “I’ve, you”ve, we’ve”,etc. This happens so often and in any “socio-economic” level considered. I must admit to using it at times but I am trying to wean myself …thanks for letting me vent. I’ll try to “hang loose”… 

  • Diane Ehlers

    Steve, I can’t believe I heard you say “whole nother,” but I replayed it, and you did, in the discussion of YOLO. Where did you get that? I’ve said it all my life,and I’m from east Tennessee.

    • Steve Kleinedler

      “A whole nother” is a very common idiom. It’s undoubtedly a phrase that I heard a lot when I was growing up, because it’s pretty ingrained in my speech, too. 

      Robin is such a great host and our chat was very relaxed, so it’s not surprising that a few informal turns of phrase ended up in our conversation.

      Thank you for listening!

  • Steve from Chicago

    A very annoying over-used phrase that I hate is, “at the end of the day”.  The over use of this phrase seems to have peaked over the last couple of years or so with no end in sight.  Most people in and on the media over use this expression including President Obama.  

    I recently heard a political strategist interviewed on NPR who said “at the end of the day” so many times that I started counting and timing it during the course of the interview. This person averaged saying it 10 to 13 times in about 16 to 20 seconds. A very inarticulate and annoying way to speak!

    Hopefully, at the end of the day, people will become aware of this and get these over used words, phrases and expressions out of their systems.

    • Vanessa D

      I’m with you on that, and I would add “sort of” to the list. I would say that, for some reason,  90% of the guests interviewed on NPR programs, including Here and Now, can’t get through a sentence without inserting “sort of” every few words. I’ve heard guests say the strangest things: “It was sort of totally without precedent.”  “It was sort of a [insert any noun or verb that is by definition unambiguous]…” It’s often quite humorous if you’re really paying attention.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408996007 P.t. Murphy

    I hate when people say “That’s not a word.” WHA? Not a word? Did I just say it? Did you just hear it? Is it understood in the context it was meant? Or even misunderstood? Well gosh darned it…IT IS NOW A WORD! How do you think we ended up with the words we have? Don’t you dictate to me. LOL!

    • WJ

       Only idiots say “LOL”. Not only that, but you’re obviously not laughing, which makes you a liar too.

  • RA

    all of your underwriters should stop being so “dedicated”and “committed”!

  • http://www.ohioken.com Ken Palosi

    Hey Robin,
    Thanks for the explanation of “to gin up.” It wasn’t your using the term that was driving me crazy but rather it was that I had never heard the term before and couldn’t find its usage anywhere. For awhile I just chalked it up as a Boston colloquialism. I really enjoy your shows where you touch upon the use of the English languague and mabye if I had looked at the American Heritage dictionary I might have found a definition for “to gin up.” Sincerely, Ken Palosi

  • Bluesmom913

    Fabulous, amazing, phenomenal, awesome when describing anything considered good.  Yes, it is very colorful conversation but leaves no room for describing something deserving.  So, I guess then it would become “truly fabulous” or “totally amazing”. 
    Maybe we just need more glorious words.

  • Sister Patrice

    Dear Executive Editor Kleinedler,
    I was an English major at UCLA, in 1951, and I was taught that when using any form of the word, Literal, one should be relating to literature.  Unfortunately that was not included in your discussion of the word, literal.  Patrice Summers, patrice.summers31@gmail.com

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/AGFS2ZJCPQR3757NKXIC4VMDDA Eric

    Two words drive me up the wall.  Not the words themselves, but how people misuse them.  Random is a perfectly good word, but it is used  by the “yoot” today to mean anything unexpected, not well considered, or vaguely unpleasant, among many others.  The other is worse.  Using “gay” to mean anything stupid, inappropriate, or just nasty is reprehensible for obvious reasons.

    • WJ

       The word “gay” was stolen in the first place, so now it’s just being re-stolen. Pot kettle black.

  • X-Ray

    Replace “at this point in time” with “now”.

  • peterlake

    All of this “begs the question”……..


    Where’s a grammar cop when you need one?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nathan-Lemmon/1259776677 Nathan Lemmon

    I don’t like misuse of the word awesome. Especially when used with any adjective. “Totally awesome” has little meaning. The moon is awesome. The Pacific Ocean is awesome, the Grand Canyon etc. Your cherry Popsicle can never be awesome – sorry.  

    • zendegy

      hmmm…cherry pie popsicle? sounds pretty awesome to me!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nathan-Lemmon/1259776677 Nathan Lemmon

    Some of the stupid things we say are cultural. In our culture here in the United States it’s common to ask, “Are you OK?” to someone who is obviously hurt. I’ve been told that in Ukraine when you approach a person who has just sprained their ankle, you wrap one of their arms around your shoulder and you help them walk – for a person who has fallen on the street, you bend down and help them up, or at least offer to. You console, hug or hold a child who is crying or who cut themselves or skinned a knee. “Are you OK sweetie?” is condescending and boarders on bullying because you are actually trying to minimize your own uncomfortable feelings with the situation, not help the victim. 

  • SccoterPie

    The next time I hear Basically I will Literally Explode, with great Impact.

  • Timothytuohy

    It used to be “like , you know”..but now for me the use of “So” at the beginning of every statement, even by well-spoken people, drives me crazy. Don’t start noticing it, for it will drive you to distraction.

    • Fay Nissenbaum

      Harry Shearer has a segment called “The Initial So” on his npr radio show, ‘Le Show’.

  • linguist pete

    Linguistic prejudices provide a good opportunity for self-reflection. 

  • Vanessa D

    There are many that annoy me, but far and away the worst is “absolutely.”  This word has taken the place of the many affirmative words and expressions available in our rich English language: certainly, clearly, correct, I couldn’t agree more, that’s right, most definitely, and many more. And what ever happened to that precise, concise and perfect word, YES… I rarely hear that one anymore.I think we have become a nation of what I call ” language sheep,” those who jump on the wagon of the latest word trend and can’t  manage to get off, accompishing only the further impoverishment of our wonderful language.  And  I often wonder, when every affirmation is so VERY absolute, who these people are that are so sure of themselves about everything.

  • Susie

    Re-occur. No such word. It’s recur.

  • Susie

    “Advocate for…”  How did this recent redundancy creep into the language? The verb to advocate was always used alone and already means to favor a particular action or idea: heart specialists advocate a diet low in cholesterol

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

August 20 Comment

James Foley Remembered For His ‘Extraordinary Courage’

U.S. officials have confirmed the authenticity of a video showing the beheading of the American journalist.

August 20 5 Comments

L.A. Moves To Arrest Fewer Misbehaving Students

The change in the school district's policy is the culmination of a long fight by judges, government officials, advocates and attorneys.

August 19 5 Comments

Abandoned Homes In Buffalo, N.Y. Selling For $1

Instead of tearing the homes down, city officials are selling them for $1, as part of the "Urban Homestead Program."

August 19 Comment

A Look At U.S. Military Options In Iraq

Retired Admiral William Fallon, who was head of United States Central Command during the Iraq War, discusses the current conflict.