20 of 2013's most overused words

By Vanessa Barford
BBC News Magazine


Every year some words get so overused there's a call to banish them the next. Take "selfie", or "twerk". The profusion of "projects" and starting sentences with "so". So, here are the Magazine's 20 most overused words of 2013.

Some of these terms have markedly peaked in 2013 - others are post-millennial perennials that still seem to be growing.

1. Twerk, v. Dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance.

Citation: Miley Cyrus stops twerking to talk about getting cut from Vogue cover @huffingtonpost

Twerking, the raunchy dance move performed by Miley Cyrus at the MTV VMAs, was among the new words added to the Oxford Dictionary of English in August. It said the word, borrowed from hip hop culture, had become increasingly visible in the past 12 months. Now it's too visible, if Time magazine's annual word banishment poll is to be believed. It said the word beat 14 other contenders to be crowned The Thing You Never Want to Hear Again. "Twerk has the proud distinction of being both the first verb and the first non-acronym to really, really get under people's skin. That word also earned the biggest chunk of votes in the poll's history; at nearly 27%, twerk topped the 22% who cast ballots for YOLO (you only live once) last year," it decreed.

2. Selfie, n. A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.

Citation: 'Selfie' named word of the year by the Oxford English Dictionary... Like to think I contributed to this @IAMKELLYBROOK

"Selfie" was named as word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries and its soaring popularity has been accompanied by everyone from the Pope to President Obama taking part in the trend. Barely a week goes by without celebrities such as Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Rihanna posting selfies on their Twitter pages. But with research suggesting the frequency of the word selfie in the English language has increased by 17,000% in the last year, the word has had its critics. In a survey in Time magazine of 14 contenders considered for the crown of The Thing You Never Want to Hear Again, selfie came third with 8% of the votes.

Image caption,
"I have the passion..." "No, I have the passion..." "No, I..."

3. Passion, n. A strong affection or enthusiasm for an object, concept, etc.

Citation: Looking for a visual #designer who is passionate about improving the daily lives of millions @Microsoftjobs

Passion/passionate makes 2013's "List of Words to Be Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness". The annual list is produced by Lake Superior State University in Michigan, US, and compiled by academics from contributions from the public. "My passion! is simple: Banish this phony-baloney word," is one of the entries, from George Alexander of Studio City, California. "Seared tuna will taste like dust swept from a station platform - until it's cooked passionately. Apparently, it's insufficient to do it ably, with skill, commitment or finesse. Passionate, begone!" is another, from Andrew Foyle in Bristol. Ian Brookes, consultant editor at Collins Language, says people tend to use the word to try to impress, or make things seem exciting. But it can backfire. "I think saying you have a passion for something sounds a bit fishy. If you do have a passion, the best way to illustrate that is to demonstrate it," he says.

Image caption,
"Aww look, we didn't win because of a handlebar moustache"

4. Look..., v. (in imperative form). To direct one's eyes or attention (towards).

Citation: Now look let me say to you, change is difficult - Ed Miliband

Listen to a politician giving a speech and there's bound to be a sentence where he or she starts with the word "look" - regardless of the contextual irrelevance of that word to the rest of the statement. "Look, if you overcalculate, you miscalculate," former foreign secretary David Miliband recently said in a response to a question from Andrew Marr. "Parents say, 'Look, we'll do our best to raise our children right and the state should agree to stand on our side'," Prime Minister David Cameron said about the crackdown on online pornography. It isn't just politicians that are taken by the word - Australian cricket captain Michael Clarke begins a large proportion of his answers to questions with the phrase "awww, look". This is just one example of dozens and dozens from the Ashes victor. But it's politicians who have a particular penchant for using it. According to the Huffington Post's Bill Swadley, President Obama "begins almost every unprepared sentence with 'Look...'". There are words that fulfil a similar role. Mortgage banker and blogger Julian Hebron cites "listen", "in the end" and "make no mistake" as other "super annoying phrases that power talkers like to start sentences with".

5. Robust, adj. Strong in constitution; hardy; vigorous.

Citation: All fire and rescue authorities in England and Wales have robust contingency plans in place - Brandon Lewis, fire minister for England

Robust has become the buzzword of politicians. In 2010, Business Secretary Vince Cable said he would take "robust" action on bank bonuses. In 2011, police promised a "robust investigation" into phone hacking and in 2012 PCC chairman Lord Hunt promised a "robust, independent regulator with teeth". More recently, David Cameron pledged to hold 'robust' talks on cutting the EU budget and chief inspector of hospitals Sir Mike Richards called for "robust, fair and transparent" hospital inspections regime. Inquiries and investigations are "robust" and will have "robust responses". Research, governing bodies and committee reports are "robust". Robust has become so prevalent that even the job market, the housing market and the exams system are talked about in terms of being "robust" or "not robust" enough. But is robust robust enough to stick around in 2014?

6. So, conj. With the consequence (that).

Citation: So we negotiate with the people to move from the land - New York Times

So has been muscling in on sentences for a while. In fact, it appeared on the annual Lake Superior State University list of banished words as long ago as 1999 - described as "over-used by many in conversation, especially teenagers, with examples: 'I am so not into that' and 'that outfit is so not you'." More recently, the word is being overused as a sentence starter. As the New York Times put it in 2010: "What is new is its status as the favoured introduction to thoughts, its encroachment on the territory of 'well', 'oh', 'um' and their ilk... No longer content to lurk in the middle of sentences, [so] has jumped to the beginning, where it can portend many things: transition, certitude, logic, attentiveness, a major insight." However some critics claim the word so has become so common at the beginning of sentences that it doesn't mean anything anymore, rendering its use "distracting and annoying". If used too often, "so" sounds like a crutch.

7. Delivery, n. Handing over, or conveying into the hands of another.

Citation: The delivery of the project will need to be co-ordinated with the forthcoming signalling upgrade - Gareth Powell, London Underground's director of strategy

Delivery is one of 2013's most common pieces of office jargon or management-speak. It could be a project delivery, a service delivery or a training delivery. Sometimes it's a timetable delivery. It tends to be a fancy way of saying "doing", "carrying out" or "execution". The word, which sits in the same camp as other overused business phrases such as "Thinking outside the box" and "going forward", comes in different forms. Like "actionables", there are "deliverables" - David Cameron and George Osborne have repeatedly said public spending cuts are "deliverable". In the BBC's satire Twenty Twelve Hugh Bonneville played the Head of Deliverance of the Olympic Deliverance Commission. Brookes says business jargon is often used by people to seem impressive. "By inventing a new word, or using a word in a different context, it can be a way of taking power in a particular situation." But he says the word delivery can be "quite redundant". Delivery didn't make the Local Government Association's list of 200 banned words in 2009 but it did make the list of public sector jargon banned in the style guide for government announcements. Pizzas and post are delivered, it points out, not abstract concepts like "improvements" or "priorities".

Image caption,
Andre Villas-Boas's projects have run out of backers

8. Project n. A proposal, scheme, or design; task requiring considerable or concerted effort.

Citation: They [the players] don't have to back my project. It's the owner who backs my project. Some of them don't back the project? That is normal - Andre Villas-Boas

What is it with football managers and their projects? At Tottenham, Andre Villas-Boas declared: "For what we want to achieve and for the projects that we have running... I think it's rightly so that we take the club forward." At Chelsea, the owner backed "his project". And when Brendan Rodgers was confirmed as the new Liverpool manager he said: "This is long-term, that was important to me, to come into a project over a number of years." As the Guardian's TalkingSport blog put it: "In the last year or so Projects have been springing up in the smouldering financial ashes of the English game like those Ray Harryhausen skeleton warriors in Jason and the Argonauts. Manchester City are a Project, Notts County are a Project, Birmingham City are on the cusp of becoming a Project, Portsmouth stand on the threshold of Projecthood and QPR have Project potential written across them."

9. Hashtag, n. Word or phrase preceded by a hash sign (#), used on social media sites such as Twitter to identify messages on a specific topic.

Citation: #firstworldproblems

Twitter made the hashtag humongous. It came third in Global Language Monitor's 2013 list of the year's top English words. But a backlash has been building for a while. People are not just using the hashtag, they are using the word in spoken phrases such as "hashtag annoying" as well. Buzzfeed has highlighted 14 Uses Of Hashtags That Will Make You Cringe, with some of the worst offenders - #tbt (Throwback Thursday), #yolo (You Only Live Once), #mcm (Man Crush Monday) #hipster and #ootd (Outfit of the Day) - listed in its 13 Hashtags To Leave In 2013. There are many others that could be added to the list. #justsayin.

Image caption,
Amazing balls. Maybe. "Amazeballs", stop.

10. Amazeballs, adj. (slang) An expression of enthusiastic approval.

Citation: Where can I get this t-shirt?! P.S. Davina...you look amazeballs on DVD! x @RuthieeL

Amazeballs' rise has been meteoric. Some credit celebrity blogger Perez Hilton with coining the word, citing his campaign to get it trending on Twitter in 2009. Others claim reality TV shows The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea broadcast the word to the masses, with participants often coupling the word with "totes" - that's totally for the uninitiated - in phrases such as "That's, like, totes amazeballs". Comedy duo Jessica & Hunter have also claimed they invented the term. Whatever its origins, the word is now widespread on social media. "Today I put strawberries on my grilled cheese and it was amazeballs," tweeted @heyclaireee. Collins added the word to its online dictionary in 2011, and in 2012, Kellogg's even created a Totes Amazeballs cereal after Charlatans' frontman Tim Burgess made a jokey suggestion in a tweet. "You know a word has arrived in language when people use it without needing to explain it. It's never used in a perfectly straight way - people play with its use, it's always used humorously," says Brookes. But not everyone is happy about the word's widespread use. In 2012, the word was added to the Dictionary of Most Annoying Words In The English Language, defined as "an exclamation inviting someone to hit you". Time magazine says "amazeballs makes [its readers] want to commit violence against your own eardrums. For realballs".

Image caption,
"Is madam 'doing lunch' or is that to take away?"

11. Doing, v. Perform or complete; prepare or arrange; produce; also used as an auxiliary to replace an earlier verb and avoid repetition.

Citation: Still half asleep as I don't do mornings well @DanCarter

Suddenly lots of people are "doing" things they wouldn't have "done" before. "Shall we do lunch?" is the question. Presumably these people are actually eating lunch, or meeting up for lunch, rather than "doing" it. People are also "doing" or "have done" cities, countries and places. And then there are things people "don't do". "I could never be a soccer player. I don't do running" tweeted @brittyrogers. The craze for using the word "doing" slightly out of its natural context has actually been around for at least 10 years, according to Brookes. Indeed it was 2003 when Alistair Campbell famously responded "We don't do God" when a journalist tried to ask former Prime Minister Tony Blair a question about belief. "It's a simple case of a cliche building up and being overused," says Brookes.

12. Absolutely Yes, certainly, definitely; without a doubt. Completely or perfectly.

Citation: Absolutely - we'll be there! Dinner would be great!

Once upon a time a simple yes would do. Now it seems the most common way of expressing affirmation in the English language is no longer enough. Absolutely is absolutely everywhere. Often with an exclamation mark. In 2009, a CNN article entitled "Is 'absolutely' overused? Absolutely!" called it a "verbal virus that's spreading unchecked on TV, radio and in print". "Was Michael Jackson a musical genius? 'Absolutely.' Want syrup on those pancakes? Absolutely,'" it cites as examples. Since then critics have got louder. "Absolutely isn't fabulous. Serial offenders who can't give a straight 'yes' should have fines taken from their bank accounts," writes poet Ian McMillan. Brookes says the word "sets his teeth on edge", citing "very much so" as another culprit. "We are put in the position of having to agree with people a lot so we search for different ways to express approval and that results in cliches," he says. Then there's the other overuse of absolutely. Things are absolutely brilliant. He's absolutely right. She's absolutely amazing. This is absolutely over.

13. Fail, v. To be or become deficient.

Citation: It amazes me how many nonprofits wait until the last weeks of the year to build a relationship with hopes of getting a donation #Fail

Commentators have been charting the overuse of the word fail for years. In 2008, Slate attributed the fail meme's momentous rise to the launch of Failblog, an assiduous chronicler of humiliation and a guide to the taxonomy of fail. In 2010, Jezebel deemed it one of the five most overused expressions on the internet. "Your inability to finish breakfast at the diner last week was not a "Pancake Fail". Your mascara getting in your hair is not a "Cosmetics Fail", it said. But the word continues to be overused, according to Global Language Monitor, which publishes an annual list of the year's top English words. It says the single word fail - "often used as a complete sentence (Fail!) to signify failure of an effort, project or endeavour" - is the second most frequently overused word in 2013. Is it time for fail to finally fail?

14. Responsible adj. Capable of fulfilling an obligation or duty; reliable, trustworthy, sensible

Citation: I consider myself to be analytical, responsible, dependable, ambitious.

When it comes to CVs and job descriptions, responsible is the most overused buzzword on profiles across the world in 2013, according to professional networking site LinkedIn. The annual study also put "strategic," "effective" and "creative" in the top 10 - but responsible was twice as popular as any other word. Critics say it's an empty word that doesn't fully describe an employee. But as the Atlantic pointed out, the word also has its supporters. "The trouble with responsible is that it (a) is an essential quality, and (b) has no obvious synonyms. Trustworthy? You sound like an exceptional pet dog. Dependable? You sound like a car service, or perhaps a lightbulb. Sensible? You sound like a moderately priced shoe. Mature? Just... no," it says.

15. Anyway, adv.conj. However the case may be; in any case; anyhow.

Citation: Anyway *wanders off mumbling to self* I'm going to clean the car.

Anyway - at the start of a sentence - is another bugbear, even for those that find themselves unconsciously using it. "I find that my most persistent 'verbal tick' in writing is saying 'Anyway,' at the start of a sentence. Anyway..." tweeted @mordicai. "Sometimes I'll look at an email and realise I've started every paragraph from the second one down with 'Anyway'. I start every second sentence with 'so'", admitted blogger In A New York Minute. Brookes says lots of the uses of the word anyway aren't just unnecessary, but also incorrect. "It's meaningless when 'anyway' is put in front of a sentence which promises to change direction, or suggests someone has finished talking about a subject, but then continues to do so," says Brookes. There's also "anyways".

16. Yeah-no Being affirmative while at the same time covering the opposite possibility. Particularly favoured by sportspeople during game time when it appears as though their team is going to score a point -(in unwords.com)

Citation: Yeah, no, he's terrible @aaron_brenner

The "yeah-no" phenomenon has been around for a while. And not in Little Britain's Vicky Pollard's catchphrase "Yeah but no but yeah but…" sense. As one blogger puts it, this yeah-no is: "When people mean 'yes' they sometimes say 'no, yeah' or 'yeah, no' and when they mean 'no' they say 'yeah, no' or 'no, yeah' or even 'no, yeah, no'." Confused as to whether this means yes or no, or both? You're not alone. But like it or loathe it, the expression has seeped into natural spoken English and the "linguistic atmosphere", according to Brookes. "It's similar to 'you know', 'kind of', 'like' and 'basically', as well as ers and ums in speech - they fill up space before the real stuff we want to communicate comes out," he says. However research by two Australian linguists suggests there is a hidden logic to the way yeah-no, and its less popular sibling, yes-no, is being used. One of the linguists, Prof Kate Burridge, says the phrase falls into three main categories, each determined by context. The literal agrees before adding another point, the abstract defuses a comment and the textual lets the speaker go back to an earlier point. The paper also suggests the most yeah-nos are used by people aged 35-49.

17. Legacy, n. Something handed down by an ancestor or predecessor.

Citation: It is a great legacy from the (Olympic) games and an inspiration to all - Mo Farah

The proliferation of the word legacy has a lot to do with Lord Coe, who made it central to London's 2005 bid to secure the Olympic Games, promising to leave a legacy for elite sport. Since then the word has become inextricably linked to the Olympics. In August 2012, Lord Coe's association with the word became official when David Cameron made him the UK's Olympics legacy ambassador. The government published a 10-point legacy plan. Since then, commentators have claimed London 2012's legacy is everything from sport in schools to more women taking up sport to Britain's biggest snow dome . "It's as if people have to use the word legacy when they talk about the Olympics," says Brookes. "Legacy is one of those words that people grab hold of because they think it has special meaning and power - it's become a bit of a cliche, but it's beloved by politicians and broadcasters because, to use another cliche, it has a feel-good factor and creates an upbeat message," he says.

18. Hipster, n. a person who follows the latest trends and fashions.

Citation: Hoxton hipsters

Hipster has been hogging the limelight for years. By 2007, it was already a "dirty word" for the hipster demographic and those marketing to them, according to Business News Daily. In 2010, Gawker appealed to its readers to help find an alternative. It was to be a single word describing the subculture with the same underlying whiff of insult. After narrowing the suggestions down to a shortlist of five and asking people to vote, it came up with "fauxhemian". The fact that fauxhemian hasn't caught on, and hipster is still being bandied about, suggests they might need to go back to the drawing board. Buzzfeed's The 21 Types Of Hipster You Encounter In London might provide some inspiration.

Image caption,
In Skyfall, James Bond's gadget guru Q has evolved into a slick computer geek

19. Geek, n. A person who is very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a specific subject.

Citation: Memo to wannabe presidents: hire geeks, not pundits - New Scientist

Geek has been deemed the word of the year by the Collins online dictionary. The word, which was once defined as meaning "a boring and unattractive social misfit", has gradually changed. In 2003, Collins ousted the former definition, opting for "a person who is preoccupied with or very knowledgeable about computing" instead. Then, in September, the dictionary's primary meaning changed again, becoming "a person who is very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a specific subject". Geekery, geek chic and geekdom also made the cut. "Under the influence of high profile celebrities such as [physicist] Brian Cox and [Facebook founder] Mark Zuckerberg, the term has increasingly become a badge of pride, and it has also come to be applied to enthusiasms beyond the field of computing," says Brookes. It's a question the Magazine has addressed. However, while the rise of geek slogan T-shirts in Topshop and other fashionista destinations suggests geeks have acquired a new status, others resent its rise. The word "geek" is incredibly overused, tweeted @the_GERV.

20. Iconic, adj. A person or thing regarded as representative of a culture or movement.

Citation: It's an iconic aircraft and will be a big attraction for visitors - East Midlands Aeropark manager Ken Williams

There was a time when the word icon - and thus iconic - was mainly used in a religious context. Now both words are everywhere. In June, writer and poet ME Tuthill did a cursory search of The Boston Globe archives to illustrate the word's overuse. She found "icon" was used 3,410 times between 1980 and 2000 - over 20 years - compared with 6,674 times from 2000 to 2013. Meanwhile the word "iconic" was used 161 times between 1980 and 2000, jumping to 2,976 between 2000 and 2013. Brookes says the words' overuse comes down to laziness. "Now anyone famous tends to be described as either an icon or a role model. It's a way of describing people without having to say why they are special or interesting in a particular sense," he says.

Definitions from the Oxford English, Collins, and Merriam-Webster Dictionaries

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