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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.

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

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