Words That Need To Die In 2023 (WTNTD 2023)
Does language create reality or does language reflect reality? I'll leave that old Vygotsky/Piaget debate aside, but I'll say that dull language certainly creates a dull reality. And that's why there is Words That Need To Die (WTNTD), an annual list of words and phrases that I've collected over the year, supplemented by a motley crew of Word Watchers that have kindly sent me suggestions for harpooning.
Quite an exuberant response from those Word Watchers this year! As a result, this post definitely won’t fit in Instagram’s 2200 character limit (talk about language-limiting!).
WTNTD is meant to promote vibrant, thoughtful, colorful, descriptive, observant, deliberate depictions of life. It does so by identifying and rooting out words that have caught on that serve as “shortcuts for thinking”: Vapid, bland, unimaginative words/phrases or ones that some sector of life—from commerce to climbing--tries to use to inflate their image or make complicated the basic.
Get out the whetstone and sharpen that harpoon, because our Word Watchers were having a moment this year--here are the WTNTD in 2023!:
Having a Moment—One way to think about WTNTD is that they are like literary ladybugs—attractive and intriguing in small numbers, but disgusting when accumulated in excess. “Having a moment” is well into the excess part of the moment it may have once been having.
It Is What It Is—As in, “I couldn't find the bottle opener, so of course I smashed off the bottle top, and now I don't have anything to drink and need 7 stitches but, hey, it is what it is bro.” Deeper and more existential than an April puddle or even a kiddie pool. After your profound exploration into causation and the nature of reality, we are still left with the question: What is it?
Existential Threat—As in, “The Bills are facing an existential threat as they go up against the Eagles three weeks before the Superbowl.” Will the Bills dissolve into nothingness if they lose? Will the team go bankrupt and disappear? No and no. All the Bills players will continue to earn their cumulative $260 million salary and life will go on. Perhaps only “trauma” now gets overused more than “existential threat.”
Trauma—As in, and I kid you not (NPR 12/20/22), talking about the “trauma US fans experienced when the US team didn’t qualify in 2018” or (some random ad) “the trauma of looking in the fridge and discovering you're out of mayonnaise.” Trauma is real, it's difficult, and it comes in many different permutations...but it doesn't include losing sports teams or lacking condiments in your fridge. Let's not devalue the experiences of those who have really experienced trauma.
Woke—As in, “Woke conservatives are now coaching woke liberals on how their snowflake children should be woke after napping.” As in the word has been co-opted by every shade of the political spectrum, to the point of meaninglessness. This is an example of a wider phenomenon called “semantic bleaching”, where words lose their power through overuse.
Cancel—As in, “I’d like to cancel my french fry order because I think whoever gave the French credit for such an excellent American invention should be canceled.” Looking over the arc of WTNTD in the past decade, it’s interesting to consider that, originally, a large portion of them came from the world of marketing and bizspeak. These days, you can count on the political world, across the political spectrum, for a hefty dose. Left, right, and center, “cancel” has been used to the point of purposelessness. [Credit to Brian Black]
Goblin Mode–As in, “I’d like to use more descriptive language, but instead I’ll just go Goblin Mode.” Credit to Brian Blankenship for bringing this one to the table. As he wrote, “Personally I had never heard the phrase until Oxford announced it as the word of the year. I have since learned that it's a TikTok thing and based on this alone I nominate it for this year's WTNTD.” Personally, I never knew that Oxford nominated a word of the year–from here on out I’d say anything they nominate is in the crosshairs.
Slay–As in, “I’m too busy slaying sick powder, so I’ll leave the real slaying to WTNTD.” Slay meet your slayer. Slay is the newest configuration of “splitter” (WTNTD 2021), which is to say, it was probably a reasonably evocative and expressive word at one point…a point that passed a long time ago. Let’s all hope slay passes soon.
Epic—As in, “We had an epic day, mainly because we didn’t epic.” Thanks to Adam Sherman for this one from the world of climbing culture. As he states, “If everything went according to plan and a good time was had, it wasn’t an epic.” Like the term “splitter, this term has climbed to the peaks of inanity in the vertical world.
Slam–As in, "Harry and Meghan slam British tabloids in new Netflix series" or "Zelensky slams Kremlin for sacrificing troops in the ‘meat waves’ of Bakhmut.” Nominator Levi Leab's provided the previous examples and writes, “Slam is typicially overused in journalism…in order to drive clicks on articles and has such a wide range of use it could mean anything from a huge blowout about serious issues all the way down to a mild disagreement over the artistic direction a movie took”...yeah, I think there’s a substantive difference between celebrity gossip and colossal war crimes. And, as Levi adds, “The use of slam perpetuates the issue of "both sides" journalism. By taking the slam shortcut reporters only need to create a headline based on what someone said rather than digging into the issue to find the truth.” Bravo, amen, and die.
Collective—As in, “My favorite place for coffee is the Cafe Collective, even though it’s a for-profit place owned by one woman who pays her staff minimum wage.” From cafes to bars to yoga studios, you’re seeing more and more “collectives.” That would be so inspiring and hopeful. But it’s not. Because they're not collectives. Look up the definition. Or, better yet, for an example of a real collective, check out the Totem Cams website. And get some Totems while you’re at it–they’re awesome. [Credit to Alysse Anton]
5 Star–As in, “Why is it that when I look at ratings on TripAdvisor, Uber, and so many other sites, everyone has a minimum 4.8 rating and when I attempt to provide a review for anything less than 5 stars, they ask me what was wrong with my service.” Nothing was wrong with the service, but nothing was exceptional either. The “5 Star” rating scheme is grade inflation to its absurd extreme–the idea that as long as you satisfied the basic criteria, your performance was exemplary. No…that’s average…which is 3 Stars. For example, anything near a 5 Star Uber driver would assist in getting luggage in the car, but I’ve ridden with several 4.8 Star Uber drivers recently that don’t even take their airpod out. To be clear, this isn’t a direct critique of the service-provider. Certainly, in many cases they could do their jobs better–but what’s the incentive when either driver receives a 5 Star rating because neither did anything wrong. This is a critique of the survey system corporations have set up. A system where anything less than 5 Stars is problematic is, in itself, problematic, as it renders ratings meaningless and devalues any particular service provider’s efforts to be exemplary.
Gaslighting–As in, “I had just finished stuffing my face at Christmas dinner and told everyone I was headed to the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet and they, like, totally gaslighted me, making it seem like I was crazy.” What started as a real word to describe a real phenomenon is now getting used to describe any situation where someone questions someone else. [Thanks to the person who submitted this, though I lost track of who it was.]
Influencer–As in, “So, you sell things via social media…doesn’t that make you a social media salesperson?” The human drive for adulation from others is well-established. Why people would squander that currency by peddling junk remains an age-old question, with “influencing” as the latest permutation.
Zoom In On–As in, “I’d like to zoom in on how this term is both the opposite of and the exact same kind of bizspeak as the “view from 30,000 feet” a few years ago.” It’s not a bad phrase, but just realize it’s incredibly unoriginal.
Drop An Edit–As in, “I’ve got to drop an edit today or my 26 YouTube followers are going to slay me.” This WTNTD comes from an aggregate of contributors. Back when I posted the WTNTD in 2019, Marc Chauvin suggested that “edit”--a bro term for “video”--needed to exit. In 2020, an abundance of current event words took over the list. This year, John Mletschnig brought it back to the forefront with the phrase “drop an edit,” which is a waaaay cooler way to say “post a video” than saying “post a video.”
My Safe Space–As in, “My safe space is watching Fox News so that I can be reassured that the liberal snowflakes really are getting owned.” It seems “my safe space” is the newest iteration of “my truth” (WTNTD RIP 2022), an elaborate self-important way to say “what I like” or “what’s most comfortable for me.” [Thanks to Elias de Andros Martos]
“Condies” & “Rig”--As in, “Condies weren’t right for sending my rig.” A fellow who goes by the @wheredojoego IG handle brought these two to chopping block for a double de-header. For the uninitiated, “rig” is simply the newest reiteration of “proj”, which was the old iteration of “climbing project”, which is a climb a person is investigating significant time and effort into finishing. “Condies” is, like “proj”, just a shortened version of a word, this particular word being “conditions” for people who are way too busy slaying it to speak in complete words, much less complete sentences. General rule of thumb: Making a habit of shortening words is goofy.
Disrupter–As in, “What can I say? I’m a disrupter. I say what’s on my mind.” Originally, disrupters were people who introduced new technology with a vision towards social change. Then they became people who introduced new technology, with a vision towards more bills than change, and were occasionally offensive (See "Elon Musk"). Now, anyone who is offensive simply passes themself off as a disrupter.
Thanks for taking the time to review the WTNTD in 2023. I hope it helps you in advancing more conscious communication. It’s been a banner year and I appreciate the assistance of everyone who contributed. And my apologies for anyone’s entries that may have fallen through the cracks in the gallow’s floorboards. Keep your hearts, minds, eyes, and ears open and your knives sharpened for the WTNTD in 2024. In the meantime, I wish you a year ahead full of thoughtful language and mindful speech!