Words and phrases I detest

August 16, 2022 • 11:00 am

I’m suffering from severe sleep deprivation again, and it’s aggravated because after a night or two, the anxiety that causes insomnia is worsened by the fear you won’t get to sleep when you do wake up (anxiety is a prime cause of insomnia). So it goes, and I have no explanation for why this came on again.  One thing insomnia teaches you—or at least taught me—is how great you feel after a good night’s rest. And when I get such a night lately, I work like a demon the next day to make up for lassitude.

Sadly, today is not one of those days.  You’ll simply have to do with a small post on some of the words and phrases I dislike (yes, some are proper usages), and I can’t even guarantee that I’ve not posted some of these before. But here we go. As always, I’ll take my examples from HuffPost if I can: the examplar of “with it” usage.

1.)  At first blush. 

This phrase is way outmoded. It’s supposed to mean “at first glance” or the like, but if you’re a language originalist, the meaning arose this way (from The Free Dictionary):

Without prior knowledge; at first glance. The earliest use of this expression dates from the sixteenth century, when blush meant not a reddening of the cheeks with embarrassment but “glimpse.” Thus, “Able at the first blushe to discearne truth from falsehood,” wrote Philip Stubbes (The Anatomie of Abuses, 2:7) in 1583.
However, even if you use it without referring to the earliest meaning, the phrase meaningless to someone today. If you ask someone who said it, “what do you mean by blush?”, they won’t be able to answer. In other words, it’s a fancy but shopworn phrase that doesn’t convey anything tangible to modern speakers. “At first glance” or “at first sight” actually means something to people.  An example from HuffPost (click to go to article):

2.) “Dropped”, meaning “came out”, as in “Rihanna’s new album just dropped.”

This is purely “with-it” jargon, meant to show that you speak use the argot of the cool kids.  But when I hear it I always envision a vinyl record falling on the ground and breaking. To me, using it means the speaker is unconsciously seeking approbation through conformity, like saying “fam” for “family.”

From HuffPost, a really cool headline because it mentions not only “drops”, but also Beyoncé (overrated, in my view) and, of course, Twitter. If it weren’t for Twitter, HuffPost would have nothing to write about.

3.) “Bright line” means a hard and fast line that divide things into (usually) two classes without confusion.

The OED’s first meaning, however, is in physics:

 1. Physics and Astronomy. A line of relative brightness in the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation coming from a given source, due to the presence of a particular element or molecule in the source; = emission linen. at emission n. Additions.

The second meaning is the one we, unfortunately, have to hear:

 2. Chiefly U.S. A clear distinction or boundary. Frequently in to draw a bright line and variants. Often used in legal contexts;

Now this is perfectly acceptable usage, but it grates on my ears, perhaps because I think that most people use it without knowing what it means. Further, the adjective “bright” doesn’t mean “hard and fast” or “uncrossable”, making the usage confusing, like “sea change”.

It’s even worse when it’s used below, for there is a mixed metaphor here. “Bright line” is a line of division between objects or ideas, while “line in the sand” means “a line that cannot be crossed.” You can make a sentence that uses this phrase properly, but HuffPost does not, for the headline below refers to Obama’s refusal to back off the Obamacare program. It has nothing to do with a “bright’ line. “Line in the sand” is sufficient.

Now I know that usage changes, and that these phrases aren’t improper usage. They’re here because they grate on me, and if someone uses them in conversation, the laws of physics may compel me to say something like “at first what?”  So don’t bother to comment me that usage changes and the like.

And, of course, you’re invited to add your own choice of the phrases that burn your onions.

81 thoughts on “Words and phrases I detest

  1. Greetings Jerry, For the last several years I’ve had difficulty getting back to sleep after a middle night pit stop. There are several decoctions available that have a small amount of CBD and sometimes THC. I have found that it works with no side effects and I drop back to sleep quickly. I eat half a gummy or take a half dose of a two pill recommendation when I turn out the light.

  2. I feel for you, both linguistically and insomniacally. I wish I could offer you sleep advice, but I have terrible, chronic insomnia; the last good night’s sleep I can remember happened in the mid-90’s when I lived in White Plains, NY. I’ve tried more or less all of the various pharmaceutical and behavioral interventions that are available, OTC, prescription, and mental, with little to no benefit. It gets so that you sometimes ALMOST feel that it’s normal.

    Please make sure to take care of yourself. You’re important to many of us out here in the world, not just for what we get from reading your website, but for what you represent, and the kind of person you clearly are.

    Regarding the linguistic examples you give: I agree on the “drop” terminology; it feels like something bad happening. At best, it conjures the notion of the next single on a stack of 45s falling down to be played, but that clearly doesn’t apply to the modern use. And the mixed metaphor of “bright line in the sand” is particularly annoying. I can’t even come up with a sensible image to go with it that seems pertinent to what they seem to want to say. Illogical language bothers me, or at least it tends to distract me, though I’m sure I’m often guilty of it.

    1. I sympathize with you. Despite trying many things, I haven’t slept through the night continuously for over 30 years. I guess I have learned to live with it; but on the odd occasion, I sleep continuously for perhaps 5 hours and I wake up surprised at how long I have slept and realizing how good even 5 hours of unbroken sleep feels.

      As I am now over 50 and a nightly bathroom trip is usually a necessity, I suspect I will now never sleep all through the night.

    2. … the last good night’s sleep I can remember happened in the mid-90’s when I lived in White Plains, NY.

      Hell, White Plains will put anyone to sleep. 🙂

      I tried a federal case there for three months, had it end in a hung jury and mistrial, so had to go back (this time in the middle of winter) for another three months. No knock on Westchester County, but how you gonna keep ’em up on the farm when the bright lights of Manhattan beckon from just a short train ride away?

      1. Yep, NY City, the land of the vehicle horn (or so it seemed to me a visitor at 2:30 a.m.), where I imagine one can’t be sure if it’s insomnia or the noise. (The next morning in the hotel lobby I saw a torrent of water pouring down an elevator shaft.)

        Some years ago in the Sunday NY Times “Metropolitan Diary,” an NYC citizen reported observing a car at a red light at a four-way intersection. There was only that car at the intersection. The light turned green and the driver immediately sounded his horn.

  3. Take melatonin. All my life I suffered badly from Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder, an extreme form of night-owlism where your circadian rhythms are all out of wack. I could never fall asleep before 3 AM. Been taking 10mg for years. Fall asleep very quickly, always before midnight.

    1. I agree about the utility of melatonin. I have no problem falling asleep but if I wake around 3 AM I often have a problem falling asleep again. If I take 10mg melatonin as soon as I wake up I am asleep within 30 minutes.

  4. Gotten very tired of some of the idioms that online news sites use, such as “X did/said something, ‘and I/we have thoughts.'” Or “X’s horrible, no good, very bad” day or week. Also the term “ratioed” referring to the number of replies vs. likes to a tweet. And any news based on a tweet. Bleh.

  5. I don’t know when this entered common parlance, but I can’t stand the use of the word “super” as an adjective for every little thing that one describes.

    “Your work was super impressive”
    “We’re super excited to have you join the team”
    “The drink was super sweet”


    1. This combination of intensity loss and popularity is not unique to ‘super’. How often does ‘incredible’ now mean unbelievable, or ‘awesome’ mean arousing awe? Its increasing misspelling as ‘oarsome’ is clear evidence of declining forcefulness. I assume ‘awful’ went through the same process long ago.

      On another matter, with fond memories from childhood of long summer holidays at beaches and sand dunes swept by waves and wind, I thought ‘line in the sand’ quite bizarre and inappropriate for several decades, until I discovered its origin in classical antiquity.

  6. Glad you asked about “words and phrases”.

    Pregnant people. Makes me want to scream.

    I have no trouble at all with people defining their pronouns, or identifying as the gender that makes them comfortable and fits with their self-perception, right up to the line of “pregnant people”.

    Sorry folks, but if you are pregnant, delivering, or lactating, there are biological realities that allow those conditions that are NOT going to change for your politics. You can be male again after you wean the kid.

    As a dairy producer, I am deeply conversant with the relevant biology. Again, your politics are not going to have the slightest effect on that biology.

    I have encountered that same level of ignorance in other situations, as well. Several years ago, in the fall, I got a call from some Mexican official wanting to buy fresh milkers. I explained to him that goats are seasonal breeders that breed in the fall and kid in the spring. Most producers, myself included, have sold their culls by late spring, so the best bet for people wanting fresh milkers is to pre-order for the following spring. The guy told me that money was no object; that the Mexican government would pay for the animals, no matter what the price. I had to explain to him that the animals’ physiology was not going to change for the Mexican government, no matter how much money they had available. Sheesh.


    1. There are medications to induce lactation. Don’t know about how they might work in goats though.

      1. Thyroprotein doesn’t work all that well, not even in humans. You will get about 20% the amount of a normal, parturition-induced amount, not enough to adequately feed an infant of any species.

        Which brings me to my other recent fave, “chest feeding”. Yarghh.


        1. I suspect a bunch of the persons on the gender language committee were whooping it up at the Malemute Saloon when someone, after three glasses of Pinot Grigio and their fifth shot of Tequila, hollered out, “CHEST FEEDING!!” before smashing their glass down on the bar and started to unbutton their blouse to demonstrate. A hush descended. No one knew whether or not to laugh, realizing that the stern person from HR wasn’t smiling and, worse, had been drinking only kale-infused Perrier all evening.

          A soft voice at the other end of the bar broke the silence and saved the day. “I think that’s an excellent idea, Sloan.” The HR person relaxed (a little), jotted a few words in their Smartphone, Sloan buttoned up their blouse, and the party broke up soon after.

          And that, boys and girls of every gender, is how we got chest feeding.

    2. Amen! Not only is being biologically female a necessary condition for getting pregant – motherhood is one of the central themes of the gender roles for women since the beginning of ever. If you’re down for that, don’t act like you’re offended by someone calling you what you are.

  7. Here’s a phrase that has probably been mentioned here before that I have an intense dislike for:

    “living one’s best life”

    95% of the time this is some celebrity, as in “Gwyneth Paltrow is now living her best life …” This is usually in reference to an important lifestyle change. In Gwynnie’s case, it could mean that her jade eggs have just dropped, for example.

    Anyway, it also implies that there is such a thing as a “best life,” whatever that means, and that those about whom this is not being reported are basically losers.

    1. In Gwynnie’s case, it could mean that her jade eggs have just dropped, for example.

      I seriously misinterpreted that sentence for a second or two!

  8. “Bright line in the sand” is a dazzling example of the compound cliché, a shortened form of: leaving no stone unturned to find the needle in the haystack.

  9. “At a great rate of speed” : reminds me of the unusually numerate reporter who referred to Nixon’s “increasing rate of inflation” as the first time that a third differential had been used in a re-election speech.

    The verb => noun => verb form:
    Oblige => obligation => obligated
    Give => gift => gifted
    Almost always the past participle, therefore leading to overuse of the passive voice. And if necessary, why not “obliged” and “given”?

    “That” instead of “who” as the relative pronoun when referring to people.

    And where have all the adverbs gone?

    1. “That” instead of “who” as the relative pronoun when referring to people.

      And where have all the adverbs gone?”

      Thank you.


    2. That – give us an example please?

      Totally agree about gifted, but the usage is not new. “He was gifted a new hat” – should be GIVEN. A gifted child is fine.

    3. I’m not a native speaker, but I can see a distinction between “gifted”=”given as a gift/present” and “given”=”handed to for any reason.
      “He was gifted a new hat for his birthday” vs. “He was given a new hat after he complained that the first one had a hole”.
      Does that make sense?

      1. Yes. You are exactly right. “One of his birthday gifts was a new hat” is probably (still) to be preferred as many audiences will get their teeth set on edge by “gifted”. But gifted is indeed distinct from merely given.

      2. Not in my book. “He was given a new hat for his birthday.”

        “My new hat was a gift.”

        Gift is obviously (?) a form of ‘gived’… he said without checking! 🤓

  10. Using the pretentious euphemism “begs the question” when what you really mean is “raises the question”.

    1. I think the speaker remembers learning that “begging the question” actually is a logical fallacy of assuming what needs to be proved, e.g., “Resolved that the barbaric sport of boxing should be banned.” Or more generally, “There can no longer be any debate about…” But he just enlists the expression for something trivial.

      1. I think the original meaning of ‘begs the question’ is beyond saving, unfortunately. It is virtually always used to mean ‘raises the question’ nowadays.

      2. The logician Peter Geach was implacably opposed to the idea that there is a logical fallacy of begging the question:
        “Sometimes people try to object to an argument on a third ground: that the conclusion is ‘already implicit in’ the premise, so that one who asserts the premises and then derives the conclusion is only ‘begging the question’. Bad logic books list ‘begging the question’ as a fallacy. This objection, however, is a mere confusion, and in the court of logic it should be denied a hearing: if the conclusion really is implicit in the premises, then the argument is logically as good as can be — the conclusion really and indefeasibly follows from the premises.”

        Quine in “Methods of Logic” is prepared to allow the use of the term, but as a matter of psychology rather than of logic: “Deciding whether a statement is believed true at the outset by all parties is a task of applied psychology”

  11. One of my “pet” peeves is dog owners who, when their dogs are off-leash in an area clearly marked “Dogs must be kept on leash,” justify it by saying “It’s ok—he’s friendly.” In anticipation of this dreaded phrase, the laws of physics compel me to ask “Is that a seeing-eye dog?” and, when the answer is “No,” saying, “Then you have no excuse for not seeing that sign.”

  12. This is purely “with-it” jargon, meant to show that you speak use the argot of the cool kids.

    I figure that, as a white guy of a certain age, by the time such jargon pierces my consciousness, it’s already well past its with-it expiration date, so will use it only archly or sardonically.

    Say what you will, but that’s how I roll.

  13. Not so much a usage of terms, but in terms of spelling and pronounciation:

    Oriented is correct. OrienTAted is not correct, at least in my opinion. I know that orientated is in the dictionary and accepted as a valid spelling, but it isn’t. It just isn’t.

    1. I accept “orientated” as a Briticism. Given the nouns ‘orient’ and ‘orientation’, ‘orientate’ follows a standard-but-not-universal pattern for verb formation (Okay, we don’t say ‘formate’, so your point is valid.). ‘Oriens/orientis’ is Latin for ‘rising’ (as in ‘rising sun’), so I could see the objection that the verb ‘orient’ should be reserved for Latinate/scientific phrases involving some kind of rise. Regardless, I’ll still continue to use ‘orient’ as a verb. I’m just wondering how long until someone tries to cancel the term for being reminiscent of a slur.

      1. I’m with you and Eric. Orient (v.) is shorter than orientate and risks no ambiguity. We never on this side of the Atlantic say someone is disorientated or that he needs to be repeatedly re-orientated. So we should be fine with saying that someone (else) is fully oriented, recognizing that it’s a convenient if illegitimate back-formation.

        But consider “discombobulate / discombobulation”. Here we can’t remove the -ate from the verb because ending in -ul it wouldn’t feel complete. Orient with its final “t” feels complete. Lucky us.

      1. A commenter is someone who comments, such as your good self (actually, another irritating archness) on this site.

        A commentator is someone who describes or analyses what is going on at a sporting contest, in politics, etc.

        I don’t think there is any excuse for confusing the two.

  14. Here in NZ we have a “bright-line test” to determine at what point the capital gain on selling a residential property that is not the main/family home becomes taxable. I have always been puzzled by the term but was too lazy to look it up until your animadversions spurred me to do so. I find it is a term from US law meaning “an objective rule that resolves legal questions in a straightforward, predictable manner. ” I have never heard it used in any other context, but often America’s present is our future, so I shall keep an ear out.

  15. “Reaching out” has become common in Ireland but it really grates on my nerves. I always have this impression of someone leaning over with their arm outstretched to get something. Of course it is a consequence of everyone here watching Netflix US series. Surely contacting, calling etc. are far simpler.
    Lying awake at 3.30am and all the worst fears dominate my thoughts. Best thing I find is to get up and read a classic (currently The Count of Monte Cristo) to put me back asleep. By the way the book by Dumas is nearly 900 pages and is very different to what I remember from the kids version, hashish appears regularly along with opium. Well worth a read.

    1. Absolutely. And also “exponentially” used as an adjective to describe size rather than growth rate – “the number of cases is exponentially bigger than it was a year ago”. Also “inflection point” used to mean the point at which the first derivative rather than the second derivative is zero – although I often feel people don’t know exactly what they mean by it, they are just vaguely indicating that something or other has changed.

      And since I’m hear, “refute” used to mean “deny” rather than “prove wrong” drives me up the wall.

  16. From New Zealand journalism
    1. the “secret” whatever – that is a scenic spot, restaurant, VIP airport lounge that everyone already knows about
    2. “Now don’t get me wrong” ie I am about to say something stupid or vaguely controversial but definitely nothing to offend the Woke.
    3. “hear me out” I am going to say something stupid again

  17. Using “based” to mean cool (or something).

    “My bad” and “I’m good.” Blech!

    I also see that “psych” now gets spelled as “sike.”

    Finally, do people no longer know how to form acronyms? I often see something like eg. A.M (rather than A.M.).

  18. I hate terms that presuppose unity or correspondences when they don’t necessarily exist — eg, “the international community,” or BIPOC, which assumes that anyone not white (itself a dicey term) is part of a unity.

  19. I detest the use of the word “aging,” as in the media referencing, e.g., a group of “aging actors” in a film franchise. A specific example is the complement of actors in the original Star Trek television series when they made “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” in 1979. It’s a fatuous conceit. No doubt the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and a host of other performers of a certain age have long since gotten their fill of that.

    How old must one be before one starts to become “aging”? From the way the media bloviates, I infer that it is in one’s forties that one starts to become “aging.” I want to hear from and about “aging” media types.

    We’re all “aging” as far as that goes, as Hitch so forthrightly put it in a video clip, if I half-way recall, starting the moment we are expelled from our mother’s uterus, hurtling toward a barn door festooned with rusty hooks and files (and no doubt nails). We see what’s coming.

    I’m grateful to have reached my current age. I occasionally have some young “whipper-snapper”

    [Has that gone the way of Biden’s “malarky”? – the self-absorbed and -regarding media obsess over such linguistic trifles. “Fiddlesticks,” I say.]

    – try to get in a dig at me by asking me how old I am. As the situation allows, I reply that I am grateful to have made it thus far, pointedly reminding him that not everyone makes it that far, and asking him if he hopes to live to at least my age. I have yet to hear a satisfactory riposte.

  20. People should get a fine for saying “second of all”, and the fine should be doubled if they don’t say “third of all” afterwards.

    1. you’re not pushing anything. A service is ‘pushing’ notifications to your device rather than your device contacting a service and ‘pulling’ notifications

  21. “Executed” for “murdered.” The Daily Mail does this all the time: “Dad Executes Kids, Then Kills Self.”

  22. Black people have been saying “Dropped” for music releases since the late 80’s/early 90’s.

    Its funny to see it being used in the mainstream (white) media.

  23. “Dropped”, meaning “came out”

    I absolutely f***ing hate that one. “BBC drops Doctor Who” has two possible meanings and the people that choose the “releases” rather than the “cancels” meaning seem to be totally unaware of the ambiguity they have created (I’m looking at you Ars Technica). It seems that every day I see a story about some iconic TV series being cancelled and then, when I click through, it turns out they have just released a new series or episode which is not news.

  24. I have a slightly topical one: “investing in Bitcoin”. I think the term “investing” is misused in many cases. I would like to limit it to cases where you buy some security that offers a return other than just going up in value. For example shares in a company usually entitle you to dividends which are shares in the profit. Anytime you are buying something purely in the hope that you can sell it again but for more money, you should use the terms “speculate” or “gamble”.

    “Investing in cryptocurrency” seems almost like a respectable thing to do but “gambling in cryptocurrency” is what you are doing and gives you a much more realistic expectation of what will happen to your money.

    1. Investing your long-term savings in common stocks is gambling?

      The speculator who buys the other side of a hedge contract is gambling, true enough. His willingness to gamble is what makes it possible for farmers to hedge their crops. Investing in start-ups is speculative, also. Without these speculators willing to lose their bet there would be no venture capital. None of these plays are for the faint of heart, including me.

      But investing for growth is not considered gambling.
      The difference is that gambling is zero-sum. The winner wins only what the other gamblers lose, no more. (Less, actually, because the house takes its cut. Always.) Investing for long-term growth in companies that actually make something, or provide a service that people need, will have its ups and downs but the investor who eventually cashes out to fund his retirement is not relying on the greater fool to be left holding the bag.

      1. I’ll concede the point that investing in stocks means you own a piece of the company and, if the company grows so does the value of the piece that you own, but, too often, the price of the stock does not reflect the value of the company. Tesla is the obvious example. Tesla does not pay dividends and it’s assets are a fraction of the size of of, say, Volkswagen. Yet it’s market cap is much higher. Why? People are gambling that, one day, it will be worth much more than VW. That is highly unlikely. At this point, buying Tesla shares is hoping for the bigger fool.

        1. At this point, perhaps. But clearly, the game has changed.

          “Game” – I think that is a clear, meaningful word for both things here – “gambling” is something of a … what is it, denigration?

  25. An old beef: “times more than” instead of “times”. For instance, “nine is three times more than three”. It isn’t; it’s three times three. If anything is three times more than three, it’s twelve.

    It gets even worse when people say “times less than”, eg “the population of Scotland is ten times less than that of England”, when what they mean is that it’s a tenth of England’s. This usage is actually ambiguous and capable of giving a false impression.

    But a losing battle, I fear.

  26. I suspect “drop” is meant to evoke “supply drops” in games like Fortnite, where boxes with fancy weapons and gear fall from the sky suspended from a balloon, and land with a satisfying “clonk”.

  27. Podcasters use drop frequently, as in “Our next episode drops Tuesday morning.” I don’t like it either.

  28. It drives me crazy when food vloggers say stuff like ‘the prime rib is better when you put the au jus over it’, or ‘have it with au jus’. Don’t they know that ‘au’ means ‘with’?

Leave a Reply