Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | October 23, 2002

Worn-out words

Sometimes words get worn out. They are overused because they are so generic they fit almost any situation or because they’re hip and trendy. In either case, choosing livelier words and phrases will make anyone a better writer or speaker.

• Nice. Could there be a more bland word? It evokes plain vanilla pleasantness. Whenever I find myself tempted to write or utter ‘nice,’ I think again.

Let’s say your significant other just spent a first day at work with a new boss, and over dinner you ask what she was like. A reply of “She’s nice” would make me cringe. It relays nothing, except perhaps that the new boss doesn’t, at first blush, seem like a raving maniac or bumbling idiot. Wouldn’t “So far, she doesn’t seem like a raving maniac or a bumbling idiot” be a much more interesting reply?

A good way to escape the ‘nice’ trap is to think about specifics. Why was the new boss nice? Was she outgoing, witty, quiet, a hard worker? Did she hand out a big fat raise and promotion? What specifically about her added up to ‘nice,’ rather than ‘pain in the posterior’ or some other assessment? If plain vanilla pleasantness was the overall impression, then “She’s kind of bland and boring, and there’s nothing offensive about her” is better than ‘nice.’

• Great. Here’s another tired, uninspiring word. Have you ever watched “House Hunters” on HGTV? Prospective buyers tour homes they might purchase, searching for the perfect abode. Unfortunately, the buyers are frequently specifics- and synonym-impaired. When the house is OK, but clearly not their favorite, it frequently rates a polite ‘nice.’ When the buyers love a home, it’s often ‘great.’

The show is a lot more interesting when buyers verbalize details while reacting to the homes they’re touring. “Look at the beautiful hardwood floors and gorgeous cathedral ceilings” tells so much more than the oft-repeated “It’s great.”

• Cute. This term grates on my ear, perhaps because it slightly offends my sensibilities, since I don’t put a lot of value in cuteness. But sometimes cute things need description. Again, there are more specific words – adorable, precious, sweet, charming, precocious, winsome – that are much more informative.

If, like me, you want to avoid the word, try to focus on the specific characteristics that make something cute: “The kitten’s thick, soft, orange fur, mismatched eyes and motorboat purr charmed me so much that I had to rescue him from the animal shelter.” A cute kitten, to be sure, but you know a lot more about the feline with those details.

• Virtual. Now we’ve moved on to the tired-because-they’re-trendy terms, and this one gets lots of use here in Silicon Valley. Maybe it’s because I’m about as technically savvy as a rock, but I just don’t understand this word. The only time in my life I can ever remember appreciating the use of ‘virtual’ was while watching the movie “Toy Story.” The real estate agency that listed Andy’s house for sale was ‘Virtual Realty.’ Witty pun. Now I’ve had my fill of virtual.

According to my Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, the main definition for virtual is “being such in essence or effect though not formally recognized or admitted” and gives the example of a dictator. For this definition, the looks-like-a-duck, walks-like-a-duck, quacks-like-a-duck test applies. Don’t call it a virtual duck, just call it a duck. If there are legal issues involved, then call it an alleged duck or suspected duck. But, please, no virtual water fowl.

• Closure. This word is everywhere. The trend started with psychotherapists, TV talk show hosts and newspaper columnists – now regular folks are using it too. Everyone needs closure, it seems. I need a definition and a break from this term.

Merriam-Webster, ironically, lists the main definition thusly: “archaic: means of enclosing.” Perhaps like a moat, or a wall around a city? We don’t use those anymore, do we? Hooray, it’s archaic, so everyone who’s not discussing archeology can avoid the word.

The dictionary’s second definition for closure is “the act of closing: the condition of being closed” (such as eyes) and the third is “something that closes” and cites the example of a pocket or zipper. The psychobabble that seems to accompany any use of the term these days fails to meet any of these definitions of closure.

Remember, a thesaurus is a wonderful resource. With its help, and some thought about details, it’s a snap avoid those easy-to-use but oh-so-generic terms, and banish trendy, nearly meaningless words forever.



  1. What about cool? I’d say that’s a worn-out word too.

  2. I agree. And “awesome.” The list could go on and on…

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