Words and phrases I detest

April 30, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Yes, it’s that time again, and what better time than Petulant Friday to bring up the words and phrases that we most dislike? I’ve managed to collect a few, and, as usual, at lest half come from HuffPost, that bastion of Wokeness and “look at us; we’re young and cool” language.

Here are a few words and phrases I dislike, with the source. The object, of course, is to stimulate readers to bring forth their own pet peeves.

Today I have four:

1.) “Bright line” or “bright line in the sand”.  Now I can understand “line in the sand”, as a line over which you’re not supposed to step lest you suffer dire consequences. But “bright” line? What is a “bright” line? According to Wikipedia, “bright line” is a term of law:

In United States constitutional law, a bright-line rule (or bright-line test) is a clearly defined rule or standard, composed of objective factors, which leaves little or no room for varying interpretation. The purpose of a bright-line rule is to produce predictable and consistent results in its application. The term “bright-line” in this sense generally occurs in a legal context.

Bright-line rules are usually standards established by courts in legal precedent or by legislatures in statutory provisions. The US Supreme Court often contrasts bright-line rules with their opposite: balancing tests (or “fine line testing”), where a result depends on weighing several factors—which could lead to inconsistent application of law or reduce objectivity.

But a “line in the sand” means pretty much the same thing in common language: a line that is not to be crossed without consequences.  Ergo, “bright line in the sand” is completely redundant, as well as a mixed metaphor. But that hasn’t stopped HuffPost—and many others—from using it (click on screenshots if you must read them):

2.) “Vacay” for “vacation”.  This irks me the same way that “fam”, short for “family”, and “sesh”, short for “session”, irk me. (I believe even Andrew Sullivan used “sesh” in last week’s column!) It’s close in sound to “vacate”, and could even be mistaken for it in conversation. “Vacation” is good enough for me, for I dislike these “aren’t I cool?” truncated neologisms. Why not say “conflay” for “conflation”? Here’s one from HuffPost:


3.) “Impactful” for “consequential” “influential” or “important”.  This is one of those words that sounds so juvenile that it instantly grates on me. Here’s an example from the New York Times, for crying out loud:

The quote:

It was awkward. Even Beyoncé’s recognition for “Black Parade” — a good song, sure, but hardly among her best or most impactful work — felt strangely conciliatory, a mea culpa for not giving “Lemonade” its proper due several years ago.

You can be more specific here, using words like “influential” or “important” (in a critical sense), but in this context it’s unclear who or what is being “impacted.”

4.) “On social” for “on social media”.  I haven’t seen this on HuffPost, which, after all, IS social media rather than journalism, but I hear it on the television news all the time when the anchors say, at the end of the show, “Follow us on social.” Is it too much to ask them to add the word “media” so we know what they’re talking about? Most people use it correctly, but there are those “too cool for my shirt” miscreants who haven’t learned that “social” is not a noun but an adjective. Like this site:

Your turn! Tell us all what words or phrases get your knickers in a twist.

111 thoughts on “Words and phrases I detest

  1. For me, the all time loser in this category is ‘disconnect’ as a noun (‘The problem here is that there’s a disconnect between what you meant and what you said’). What the hell is wrong with ‘disconnection’?? When we vote, we don’t vote in an ‘elect’; when we hire a bodyguard (those of us who for some reasons need one) we don’t explain that we need ‘protect’. What crime was poor old ‘disconnection’ guilty of that got it sentenced to decapitation like that??

    1. Apparently “disconnect” as a noun has been in use since 1900. Sounds better than disconnection to me. What I really hate is “can’t hardly”…

      1. Really! And here I was thinking it’s a late sloppy coinage. I never ever heard it used as a nominal form until maybe the past decade, and now that’s almost all you hear… it would be very interesting to know how it came to be back-formed from the full noun bearing the -tion suffix. And why only it, and no other -tion noun (or is that a wrong assumption as well… ?)

      2. Right.

        I can hardly wait to reply.

        With “can’t”, it’s another one of those ‘say the negation’ of what you really mean, because the sayer thinks that makes him real cool, man. Oops, sorry—real cool, person.

      1. Well, for morphologists, the material that determines a derived word’s part of speech is considered what’s called the ‘head’ (similar to the use of ‘head’ to identify the part of a syntactic phrase that determines its distribution). The -tion takes the verb ‘disconnect’ to a noun part of speech (plural vs. singular inflection etc), so removing it…. :-O

  2. A Friday treat! Maybe it is the approaching weekend, the fact that three weeks have passed since my J&J jab and I’m not dead or the return of the rain, but I’m not feeling nearly peevish enough to think of any good words today. That said, the two that come to mind are ‘woke’ and ‘CRT’, but for different reasons. ‘Woke’ has become a catchall which, as I understand it, is not even used by the folks who coined it anymore, now just means ‘not-conservative thing I don’t agree with’. The media outlets who use it approvingly are doing the same ‘not-conservative thing I agree with’. CRT, on the other hand, is a specific thing with an actual meaning. I think most people who use the term casually don’t realize this, they just think it means anything race-related and not flattering to white people. (I’m thinking of people like my parents here who’ve heard the terms on Fox or OAN, not people who actually do the research and know what they are talking about). Specificity matters, and these two terms seem less than helpful in their popular iterations.

    1. It took me a while to figure out that the ‘CRT’ you were writing about wasnt a Cathode Ray Tube.

      1. Same here (for CRT). And I’m finally learning that BLM usually doesn’t mean the Bureau of Land Management.

        1. As a staunch member of the derrière garde, I still think first, ‘Cathode Ray Tube’, before correcting to its modern meaning. Very rarely listening to modern popular music, I was briefly puzzled that anyone might make a song, let alone a controversial song, about Wireless Application Protocols.

          1. Pardon my rudeness, but “derriere garde” sounds to a reprobate like me to maybe be a word in Francais for a certain type of chastity belt!

            (Do not worry, that’s another feeble joke; I did understand I think.)

      1. Perhaps “jab” is the preferred term in the UK. The Economist uses it often. They have several recent articles on the pandemic that use “jab” in the title. They even have a podcast:

        “The Jab from Economist Radio” is a new podcast reporting from the sharp end of the vaccination race.

        1. Actually Paul, I was the only one here several months ago who needed someone to tell me what CRT meant in its contemporary jargon usage, and you kindly obliged.

          That word ‘critical’ immediately reminds me of Derrida and the postmodern herd of pseudo-philosophers. Antony Grayling, in his newish book on the history of philosophy, mentioned recently here by Jerry, does a beautiful job of putting Derrida in his proper place, namely the garbage can.

          OTOH that reminds of the joke: a pure mathematician needs only a pencil, some paper and a garbage can to do her or his research; whereas a philosopher makes do nicely without the garbage can.

          1. Post modernism is the origin of the “Critical” in CRT. One of its fundamental ideas is that truths experienced by an individual are more important than consensual shared truths. Of course, shared truth is the ultimate goal of science so, in a sense, it is the opposite of science.

    1. Yeah even in vernacular terms I see them as different.
      Bright line = easy to distinguish which side you’re on
      Line in the sand = high consequence for crossing.

      These examples are not perfect because they don’t refer to human intent/action, which the phrases usually do. But with that imperfection in mind, to illustrate:

      A speed limit is a bright line but not a line in the sand.

      The speed at which your car will hydroplane is a line in the sand, but not bright.


  3. Two phrases I hope never to hear again but almost certainly will: “gentle giant” and “winter wonderland”.

    1. I think it’s overuse like that that gets me, rather than a particular word per se. As George Orwell wisely wrote in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language,

      Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

      1. The only time I enjoy overuse of metaphors and similes is in Ray Hudson’s color commentary for Barça football. He can pack about 5 of them, mixed, in one sentence. “Cooler than a polar bear’s backside”, “like ice-cubes down his y-fronts”, “easy-peasy Japanesey”…

  4. Right now it’s “problematic” that’s grinding my gears. I have no problem with the word, but rather the way it is increasingly being used to throw rhetorical rocks at something that the writer doesn’t like, but can’t make a good argument against.

  5. I’ll apologize in advance for the length of this entry, but I wanted to share my agreement about “impact.” This entry was from my very first Language Police column back in November, 1994, shortly after I became the Editor-in-Chief of Citations, the local bar association monthly.

    (And the word that I chose over even “impact,” which was part of the next month’s column? “Unique.”)

    * * * * *

    Impact holds clear runner-up status for most-abused word in the English language. Its use should be strictly limited to discussions of dental pathology, ballistics, and the actual physical collision of objects. If you, as a lawyer, are not writing about a traffic collision or a parachute that failed to open (or some analogous situation), do not use this word.

    Specifically, impact as a noun does not equal effect. As a verb, it does not equal affect. It is not merely a stronger, “punchier” variant of these words. To use it so does not make your writing more effective; it merely debases the currency of our language. Dictionaries from Random House accept all of these usages, without comment or reservation, as standard English. Members of the American Heritage Usage Panel label such usages as “bureaucratic,” “pretentious,” “vile,” and “a vulgarism.” Avoid these usages unless everyone who will hear you speak, or who will read your work, is uneducated. In that case, avoid them anyway–their education can start with your example!

    The problems with impact often transcend simple silliness. Consider this recent example from the October 1994, California Bar Journal:

    “Lack of proper credentials can negatively impact the jury and reduce the weight given to expert witness testimony.” (Emphasis added)

    Just what is this person trying to say? I think that he is warning us against trying to slop garbage to the jury–as if to hogs–because juries are smarter than that, and they won’t eat it. So why doesn’t he say just say so? Impact here is worse than ridiculous–it is obfuscatory and meaningless.

    I recommend that you read the entire discussion about impact in the American Heritage. (On Compu-Serve, it is under “Reference–Basic Reference Products.”)

    1. Yikes. No “[e]mphasis added.” as I never have figured out how to add italics OR bold to a WordPress comment.

      1. You need to use the character [] followed by “i” to turn on italics (replace “i” with “b” for bold) followed by [>] at the start of the word/phrase you want to format. Then use [<] followed by "/i" and [>] ( or replace "i" with "b") to turn them off again. Unfortunately, it's hard to explain because if I use the actual characters they won't appear because WordPress will take them literally. So no quotation marks or square brackets in the preceding should be used when you use the characters enclosed in them for real!

          1. Thanks, JezGrove. I’ve tried it before on WordPress without success. (And I’m familiar with the techniques, as I use them to create web pages regularly), but I’ll give it another shot.

    2. I detest “impactful” and its hideous clan with the heat of a thousand volcanoes. I noted, along “vacay,” someone mentioned the egregious “cray cray.” I’ll just add the obnoxious ” vajayjay” as a cutesy reference to female genitalia. Words! Can’t live without them; can’t kill them.

  6. The one currently driving me batty is ‘unputdownable’ – I keep seeing it in book reviews!

  7. According to Wiktionary, “impactful” goes back to about 1940, although the earliest illustrative quotation that it cites is from a decade later. https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/impactful

    Along similar lines, Fowler’s Modern English Usage notes that complaints about the use of “impact” as a verb are mistaken, and that the verb (first use circa 1600) predates the noun by a couple of centuries!

    1. Interesting re: impact as a verb🙀 Might have to become more tolerant thereof. Whoops, is thereof a preposition??

      1. It’s an adverb. But no matter: as Mr. Churchill said, the “rule” against terminal prepositions is one up with which I will not put.

        Anyway, that’s where I’m comin’ from. 🙂

  8. One that I am really sick of is “new normal” What is that? Is it really new? Is it normal, what’s normal? On the religious order – I cannot stand thought and prayers. I have some thoughts but it has nothing to do with prayers. Or how about “thank you for your service”. Well, thank you for that left signal. Would have even been better if you had turned left.

  9. I can’t quite bring myself to condemn ‘sesh’ but that might be because it has more of a slangy connotation in Scotland, esp. when mixed with the Scottish accent: ‘let’s go oan a sesh the night, lads’ etc etc. ‘Going on the sesh’ being a useful phrase to indicate ‘we’re all going to go out until the early hours and get absolutely hammered beyond normal human limits.’

  10. As for me, some peeves include ‘problematic’ with its related word ‘problematise’- as in my English lecturers trying to sound sophisticated and oh-so-cool by saying ‘let’s problematise this text’ i.e. critique it for failing some political test. ‘Problematic’ just means: ‘I don’t like this for ideological reasons.’ As in, ‘Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s criticism of Islam is SO problematic’.

    And then there’s ‘lived experience’ which seems like a tautology to me, though I fear someone will come and tell me that technically it’s not so I’m not wedded to that criticism of it. My main criticism of it is that it’s a clumsy phrase and it’s often used by the woke to mean ‘this particular anecdote which counts for more in any analysis of some huge social issue than any other possible evidence which could be presented, however rigorous or broad.’

    1. And before anyone criticises my own construction, let me quote Orwell’s disclaimer from ‘Politics and the English Language’: “Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.”

      1. To have cited Orwell’s magnificent essay is to be forgiven in advance for (almost) any linguistic offense.

    2. My last comment here, as I’m making the same point in different contexts. “Problematize” was used by Ben Jonson back in 1629…!

        1. Interestingly, the line “Hear him problematize” is in relation to a “Professor [Fly] in the Inn, here, of small matters”:

          Tipto: Hear him problematize.
          Prudence: Bless us, what’s that?
          Tipto: Or syllogize, elenchize.
          Lady: Sure, petard’s, To blow us up.
          Latimer: Some inginous strong words!
          Host: He means to erect a Castle i’ the Air, And make his Fly an Elephant to carry it.
          Tipto: Bird of the Arts he is, and Fly by Name!

          The New Inn or The Light Heart, Act II, Scene VI

  11. I always thought that “line in the sand” referred to a dichotomy that will likely be temporary as in a line made in beach sand will get washed away by the next high tide.

    1. I think “written in the sand” is the expression that carries the connotation you’re thinking of, Paul — viz., ephemeral.

      A “line in the sand” is one scratched out with a steel-toed boot with the implication “cross this at your own risk, buster.”

  12. When did cliche become an adjective? I just hate it. In yesterday’s newspaper, Lindsey Bahr (AP) reviewed film “Without Remorse”, writing, “She (Jodie Turner-Smith) is steely and intimidating without being cliche…”. Ugh.

  13. Decimate : does it mean 1/10, some, most, all?

    Definition of decimate
    transitive verb

    1: to select by lot and kill every tenth man of
    decimate a regiment

    2: to exact a tax of 10 percent from
    poor as a decimated Cavalier

    3a: to reduce drastically especially in number
    cholera decimated the population

    b: to cause great destruction or harm to
    firebombs decimated the city
    an industry decimated by recession

  14. My wife bought a sports jersey last week and I received an email that said “You’re merch is on it’s way!” Merch for merchandise? Oh brother. What’s wrong with “order” or “package”. Though I dislike vacay much more.

          1. J.J. Watt…he transferred from Houston. Though QB Wilson here in Seattle now has him and Donald from the Rams to contend with. A bruising is coming unless Seattle figures out a good front. First draft pick was a wide out?

    1. Merch is used to refer to a particular kind of merchandise: stuff that promotes a brand but has nothing to do with the main product associated with the brand. This is how new words are made though there’s no way of knowing whether “merch” will live long. It seems like it has a better chance than “vacay” as it has its own separate meaning. As far as I know, “vacay” is just a shortening of “vacation” and has the same meaning.

      1. Where I encounter “shots in arms,” it refers to vaccinations in general. I suspect it sounds more “impactful” to journalists.

      2. From CDC:

        In general, people are considered fully vaccinated:

        2 weeks after their second dose in a 2-dose series, such as the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or
        2 weeks after a single-dose vaccine, such as Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine

        If you don’t meet these requirements, you are NOT fully vaccinated. Keep taking all precautions until you are fully vaccinated.

  15. Does anyone else find something incredibly annoying about ‘going forward’ in place of ‘in(to) the future’, which it invariably seems to mean?

    1. Yeah, I hate that one too. And I’ll propose ‘long story short’; are we really in such a hurry that we have to drop ‘to make a …’?

      And while I’m griping (something which I, as a card-carrying curmudgeon, am allowed to do), how about people who use ‘i.e.’ and ‘e.g.’ in speech? Those should be reserved for written language. (I might excuse you if you actually use the full Latin words and know not to confuse the two terms.)

      1. I knew a blowhard yacht captain who used to use (and, more often than not, misuse) “i.e.” in conversation. At the bar where I worked (and at which he would hold forth), we tagged him with the sobriquet “i.e., the Captain.”

    2. I agree emphatically—it’s just PR man/politician/real estate agent bullshit happy talk which has taken hold of the ignorant. You could read it 10 times even in NYTimes and never see the disappearing word ‘future’ except in a science column by Carl Zimmer.

      The universe will expand into nothingness going forward.

  16. How about “staycay”

    There are a few impactions in medical literature. Fecal impact – not good. Yet, impactful. Like Beyoncé’s computationally and committee engineered sound products.

    1. I really hate “graduated college” as well, and you hear a lot of people who should know better say this.

  17. “For me…”

    It’s the worst, a ubiquitous preamble that starts every other sentence it seems these days. It’s redundant because obviously the speaker is sharing their account whether opinion or fact. It is meant to convey “I think” “I believe” “I suspect” “I know” but in a cloying, preemptive move meant to disarm anyone listening by explicitly stating that what follows is their personal truth making whatever follows unimpeachable because how could anyone argue against their personal experience and revelation.

    Even worse is the long form: “I just feel like for me…”
    Feelings. Not facts, not evidence but feelings. It’s as if the way to be convincing these days is to make everything subjective and so much so that objectivity no longer exists. I even encountered a Ph.D scientist say this right before a discussion about the implications of data that we were analyzing. I almost blew a gasket!

    Me and a buddy joke about this frequently by mockingly appending it to the end of sentences.
    The physics of black holes…for me.
    Jury objectivity and the burden of proof legal standard…for me.
    Epistemology…for me.
    Universal human rights…for me.

        1. Of course. I was typing this on a phone and grew tired of finger editing so I just posted it without re-reading. No regrets.

  18. For me, this is a good complaint. But that’s just me. See what I did? Similar to yours, I cringe at “but that’s just me.” You can get out of almost any stance or conviction with that phrase as well.

    1. Heh-heh. I try to be polite to most people and not antagonize too many but for the more intransigent offenders of the “For me…but hey, that’s just me” transgression, I feel compelled to reply first by placating their solipsism briefly before applying some sarcastic heat to that ego bubble.

      1. One not-so-polite reply to ‘For me, blah blah blah..’ could be:

        Do you mean that everybody else in the world thinks you are full of shit? Otherwise the “For me” is either redundant or a silly dichotomy between metalanguage and object language since you didn’t say you are quoting somebody else. If you actually think you are being particularly original (so the rest of the world has no opinion yet) just go ahead and say so.

  19. Totally agree on (almost) all counts. You know, professor, you read HuffPost JUST TO GET ANNOYED.
    Life is too short.

    Be that as it may… I agree with you on all counts (particularly “bright line”) except “Vacay” works in the British Commonwealth context (there are Brit Commonwealth HuffPosts I think, though I don’t read it), as do a few of Sullivan’s verbal ejaculations (most of which are STUPID).
    But with Vacay there’s a cultural clash there.
    “Judge” David pronounces “Vacay” permissible. The rest…. let ’em hang I say.
    D.A., J.D.

  20. A few journalistic cliches that have been around for ages but just happen to annoy me this week:

    1. All military exercises, small or large, are ‘drills’.
    2. Whenever troops deploy from their base or their transport, they are ‘fanning out’.
    3. Whenever anything is getting worse, it is ‘spiralling out of control’.

    Maybe this is just a UK media thing. It’s damn annoying, whatever it is.

  21. 1/ The misuse of ‘international’, especially from educators who should have known better, when the correct word is ‘foreign’, in its common, not negative, meaning. That “negative” is exactly why the nervous nellies stopped using it.

    2/ Any headline segment that begins “Here’s …..” often ending with a ‘!’ .

  22. ‘You’re on the wrong side of history’ is something that is increasingly being said to anybody opposing the transgender dogma, and it is nonsense.
    Unless the advocates of the dogma also have prophetic abilities, they will have to wait for the issues to be settled – for history to be written – before they can say who was on the wrong side.

    1. So cliche.
      If the ideas are sound and well supported, I often wish people would shame this vapid rebuttal with “and you’re on the wrong side of the future.”

      1. Reckon you should hash things out with Joe at #15 who objects to “cliché” (as opposed, I assume, to the past participle “clichéd”) as an adjective. 🙂

        Personally, I’m cool with either form, since I believe cliché is already a past participle in the original French.

      2. Well done—I’m glad to see you’re one of the rare ones who didn’t say ‘you’re on the wrong side going forward’!

        And “you’re” surely should be “you will be” if I understand correctly.
        ‘You’re on the wrong side of history’ would be proper response to, e.g., say, a claim that Hitler was actually a gorilla, not a human—or that Caesar was a Roman immigrant from Iceland.

        1. Yes, that’s precisely my beef with it. They are declaring one to be on the wrong side of history despite the issue being on-going and far from settled. It’s either an arrogant way of declaring that they are right and any debate is pointless, or it’s a claim of the ability to see into the future. Either way, it’s not a claim that can possibly be made in the present tense, but that is the tense they’re using.

    2. Right. Why not rather simply say, “You’re wrong”? Do they mean, “You’re not on the winning side”? As if they know without a doubt what side will win. History will be whatever it’s going to be. One can be on the right side, yet still on the losing side (for the time being).

  23. In Philly the TV and radio weather reporters say “The forecast for your Saturday is…”.

    Why is it “…your…”? I don’t know who started this annoying phrasing or why. Do other cities do this?

    1. That’s the talking head method of personalizing, at least for the really dumb audience that TV is almost entirely aimed at, especially commercial TV.

      I think it’s common everywhere in U.S. and Canada.

  24. Here’s another, of which I was reminded by certain of the earlier posts. I listen to NPR a lot, and it seems that interviewers are capable of asking questions that CLEARLY call for a yes or a no response. (Or even: “well, it depends…”) Perhaps some nuance might be added by way of explanation AFTER answering the goddamned question, but these days one can listen to hundreds of such questions, without ever getting a straight answer.

    Example: “Do you think that Covid hospitalizations will continue to decline for the next month?” Or: “Do you think that the markets will continue to rise after the election?”

    Now, the interviewee could respond “yes,” or “no,” or “well, it depends on whether…”

    But these days, one NEVER hears any response to the question. The UNIVERSAL answer these days to practically EVERY such question is…what?

    “So…” followed by some mealy-mouthed bullshit that NEVER answers the goddamned question.

    What does that even mean? “So…” Could we just completely excise “so” from EVER being the first word in ANY sentence? It’s the very essence of obfuscation.

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