Can We Ever Reclaim the Meaning of Words?

Literally Pedantic

Every year there are lists of words that ‘need to be banished’, or that are misused or lose their meaning and so on. For example, did you know ‘peruse’ originally meant to read in detail, rather than the common usage which is to skim contents? I know I’d read it before, but the current context always springs to mind.

There are plenty of words that seem to have lost their meaning through the years – such as ‘instant’, which now means ‘quick’ through the wonders of advertising.

But that is nothing to the automatic eye-roll I do when certain words are uttered. You know that person who says ‘this is the best thing EVER, and you know immediately it is NOT?’ Yeah, that is my response to these words!

Here are three words whose current abuse drives me bonkers!

Blessed: what seems like a way to describe a situation with humility is in reality one of the sneakiest humblebrags! Many of us have said we are blessed by having such wonderful spouses, marriages or kids … but let’s be honest, you aren’t ‘blessed’ by having a 12,000 sq. ft. house with enough garage space for all of your BMWs.

Also I am bothered by the current trend of religious usage … NOT that I am implying it shouldn’t be used in a religious context! In fact, it is pretty much a religious statement (as in ‘blessed by god’), but what I have seen lately is a switch from humility (I have undeservedly been blessed) to hubris (my kid was first again, blessed because we’re Christians!) … and that always troubles me!

One problem with words losing their meaning is when they were beautiful to begin with … like Blessed.

Obsessed: most time when I read someone being ‘obsessed’ with something it ends up being the equivalent of walking by a store window with friends back in the early 80s and having one of them say ‘that’s a wicked cool jacket’ before moving along.

So yeah, obsessed now means ‘I think this is cool and I want one … and when I get it I’ll wear it more than other stuff for a little while’.

Literally: this one has literally been written about an infinite amount of times already to the point where my eyeballs literally dive out of my face whenever they see it misused! Haha! Perhaps it would be less obnoxious if it wasn’t simultaneously one of the most overused words!

Sadly ‘literally’ has come to mean figuratively, and as a result when I am trying to make an exact statement I cannot depend on the word ‘literally’ anymore. It is only a matter of time until ‘literal translation’ means ‘rough translation’.

I actually had one more that bugs me … but turns out the current usage is actually several hundred years old, it is just over-used now:

Rock = wear

I had no clue that people were ‘rocking’ garb in the middle ages, but I do know that on all sorts of blogs I read about people rocking new running shoes, clothes, hats, or whatever. And like any other over-used word, it loses its meaning after a while.

And … the final part of this rant is actually somewhat serious.

There are numerous medical conditions, either physical or psychological, whose terminology has been co-opted for colloqial use. Ones we used as kids such as ‘gay’ or ‘retarded’ are at least acknowledged as ignorant and offenseive … not that it stops some folks.

But how often do you hear people joking around, saying ‘oh, that’s my ADHD’ or ‘I am so OCD’ or ‘my brain tumor is flaring up’ or whatever.

These are actual and serious conditions, and particularly for OCD and ADHD sufferers already deal with the stigma of mental illnesses and our societal discrimination against them. To equate the desire to have all your light switches aligned to the acute nero-anxiety disorder that is beyond the control of the sufferer … not cool. Please stop.

I picked the image because after I started writing this – which was based on reading all three in rapid succession last week – I had to laugh at myself. Because – aside from the last part – none of it really matters all that much. Language is fluid, and just like ‘wicked cool’ from my childhood in the 70s and 80s is an utterly meaningless phrase that I’m certain annoyed many adults, so will these words (and others like YOLO, swag, and so on) simply fade into the tapestry of history.


3 thoughts on “Can We Ever Reclaim the Meaning of Words?

  1. Great topic, Michael! I admittedly misuse “obsessed” and “blessed” sometimes, and I had no idea about “peruse”! The misuse of “literally” also bugs me, and people at work say it all the time! Sadly, I also have a colleague who misuses “retarded” despite my frequent urging – very frustrating to me.

  2. Very interesting read! I definitely use obsessed and literally ALL THE TIME! And these days especially, you have to think before you speak….words hurt people and someone casually using the term ‘retarded’ could really really hurt someone else’s feelings. Understandably so!

  3. Funny stuff – thanks for the comments. I think it always strikes us when we have a particular context for a word and then it becomes popular in a different or less stringent context.

    Aside from all of the repurposed words I know were trashed in my youth in the 70s and 80s, I can also think back at the casual offensiveness that was also omnipresent. It was much more socially acceptable to make jokes about anyone who wasn’t white Christian and American back then … so maybe there is progress?

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