Overused Words and How To Reclaim Them

Have you ever read the book The Giver? Whether you have or not, you’ve probably heard someone, somewhere use the phrase “precision of language.” According to an analysis of the book by Shmoop, “the entire purpose of ‘precision of language’ should be to avoid conflict and problems, misunderstanding, and even potential violence.”

Personally, I prefer the term “intentionality of language.” Just like the things I own or buy, I want the things I say to be intentional and add as much value to my life and others’ as they can. Of course, that will not always happen. But when I think about the words I use, I realize that there are a few that I could try to use more intentionally.

That being said, here are a few of the words I am likely to overuse and some ideas for using them more intentionally:

  • That’s awesome!
  • That is literally
  • It was unbelievable!
  • It was so unique.
  • I need that!
  • I love it!

Have you used any of these phrases (or something similar) in the last 24 hours? I have.

I’m far from the first person to say it, but words and phrases like these are used so often in our society that they have lost much of their meaning. Obviously they still have some significance, or else we wouldn’t use them. But what if you looked at their actual meanings? Don’t get me wrong, you can find dozens of definitions for each of these words, but what’s the first thing that comes up when you type the word into good old Google?

  • Awesome (adj.) – extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear.

I’m pretty sure the last time I described something as “awesome” was when I was eating a bowl of potato soup. That soup was pretty great, but did it make me feel admiration? Apprehension? Fear? No. That’s absurd. I’m not impressed by a bowl of soup, and I don’t fear it. So what do I find awesome in the above sense? Things like religion, the nature of humanity, the vastness of space (admiration), an atomic bomb (apprehension) and my mother using my middle name (fear) are all examples. I’m not saying a bowl of potato soup can’t be awesome, but if you chose to say “this is tasty”, or “what great flavor”, then saying “awesome” might carry more meaning and a sense of intentionality for you and those around you.

  • Literally (adv.) – in a literal manner or sense; exactly.

No doubt you know where I’m going with this one. Most of us have a friend who makes the following joke: “Wow, you ‘literally couldn’t see a thing?’ Were you figuratively seeing things?” Personally, I’ve been on both sides of that exchange, but it does make me wonder; what would happen if saved “literally” for things that were, in fact, literal?

  • Unbelievable (adj.) – not able to be believed; unlikely to be true.

“You haven’t seen Captain America: Civil War? That movie was unbelievable!” This was a sentence I said to my roommate about two weeks ago. At the time, we were debating the quality of various movie franchises, and I’m sure it’s a debate we’ll have again. But in the moment, this sentence gave me a moment of pause. Was Captain America: Civil War unbelievable to me? No it was not. It was enjoyable, sure. I liked the soundtrack, the special effects seemed very well-done, and the plotline kept me excited and engaged. But despite all that, it wasn’t unbelievable. So when would I use this word intentionally? The answer: not often. If I were to use it, I would probably use it to talk about a piece of fake news, a ‘fact’ I found on Instagram, or a story about a woman who had 75 children in 25 years. Those things are definitely deserving of the term “unbelievable.” Will I still use this word unintentionally? Of course. But it’s one I could start to work on in my everyday dialogue.

  • Unique (adj.) – being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else.

When was the last time you saw something that was really, truly unique? The art on your walls probably isn’t unique, your furniture and throw pillows probably aren’t unique, and I’m willing to bet there are a few thousand people who own the same t-shirt, jeans, or hat that you do. So how do we take back the word “unique?” You could start out by listing three things you see every day that are unlike anything else. An unusually-shaped tree, a family you notice walking down the street, an odd-looking house or other building. Noticing these kinds of things may help you focus more on the truly one-of-a-kind objects or people in your life.

  • Need (v.) – to require (something) because it is essential or very important.

Now, I have saved the two words that I struggle the most with for very last. As any minimalist will tell you, one of the core goals of minimalism is to separate wants from real needs. This becomes difficult when we realize how many things are “needs” in our lives. I may say that I need coffee, a new pair of shoes, a new phone (that’s a big one for me). But do we really need these items?

Of course not. Going without coffee may mean I’m more tired, but it won’t stop me from getting on with my day. A new pair of shoes would be great, but the ones I have are most likely in perfectly good shape. And while I believe all humans need to communicate, we don’t need to have the latest smartphone in order to do so. (A gizmodo article by David Nield argues: “It’s your money, obviously, but you could opt to keep your current phone and spend that $1,000 on a brand new laptop, or buy a plane ticket to, you know, anywhere in the world.”) So try and take back the word “need”, instead of using it to describe things you only want.

  • Love (v.) – feel a deep romantic or sexual attachment to (someone).

And now we come to my favorite word on this list. Obviously love does not always mean a romantic connection (think of spiritual love, familial love, friendship love), but I’ve found that this is the best definition to think of when I’m trying to use “love” intentionally. For example, yesterday I said that I loved my car. But then I thought of the above definition. Do I feel a romantic or sexual attachment to my car? Of course I don’t. I’ve heard of people that do (if that’s you, please get professional help), but to the rest of us, that sounds completely ridiculous. The same goes for my headphones, my laptop, the yogurt I had this morning, etc. When I catch myself saying I love any kind of object, I do my best to correct myself. Phrases such as: “I highly enjoy,” “I admire,” or “I value” can be very useful for this. Love is meant to be reserved for people and relationships, and if you use it more intentionally, I guarantee that you’ll find it much more valuable and sacred.

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