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Like, you know, some words are overused

I've concluded that certain words and phrases in the English language are so overused they've become irksome to the ear.

Communication experts and word merchants seem to agree with me, pointing to phrases such as, "It is what it is" and "At the end of the day "…"

I would add, "You think?"

If you're a regular reader of the Independent Florida Alligator (www.alligator.org) and follow its online blogger, Kelly Collar, you already know about "The 10 most excessively used words or phrases."

There are somewhere between 150,000 and a half-million words in the English language, and many people think the most overused word is "awesome." In conversations I've had lately, a runner-up could be "gnarly."

Did you know those two words have come to mean almost the same thing?

Bigger question: What counts as a word?

These same word experts say it's impossible to be sure. Think about it like this: Is "dog" a word or two words (a noun meaning "a kind of animal" and a verb meaning "to follow persistently")?

If you make them plural, is that another two words?

Is "dog-tired" a word that should be counted? What about "hot dog?"

At this point, you're probably saying, "Do I care?" or "Whatever." Both replies are on most lists of overused words, of course. Just sayin'.

Other phrases I've heard much too frequently in recent months are "kick the can down the road" and "fiscal cliff" (some news organizations now ban their use).

"Superfood" is definitely overused. I was standing in a grocery store checkout line this week, and that word was boldly placed on the covers of at least half the magazines within my view.

The website www.squidoo.com ventures into the wordsmithing realm in one article that asks the question, "When someone says 'think outside the box,' do you feel like shutting them in a box?" Are you going to scream if you hear some kid say, 'like, you know,' one more time?"

I queried a small sample of people asking which word or phrase they felt was overused to the point of "pushing their buttons." One person said it was "the dog wants out," which I would not have put on any list of this kind. Although, people with dogs probably use that phrase a lot.

Several posed the word "literally." One reader told me I've used it incorrectly in the past. An article on the squidoo website helped assure I would not do that again by suggesting "literally" is not a word to be used for emphasis.

"It's a word you use when you say something should not be interpreted figuratively."

As illustration, if you jumped so high you bumped your head, you might say, "I literally hit the ceiling."

But if you were to say, "I literally worked my butt off," it doesn't mean you worked really hard. It means you don't have a butt anymore.


Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at 541-261-2037 or Sharon@hmj.com