List of overused words: From ‘Conversation’ to ‘So’

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Richard Fry wants to talk. Or have a discussion, a chat, even a debate.

Just don’t call it a “conversation,” because he considers that word overused; he hears its all over the media, and once counted a radio host using the word four times in one sentence.

Fed up, Fry nominated “conversation” for Lake Superior State University’s annual list of “Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness” — and it made the cut this year.

Vape: Used to describe the act of ‘smoking’ e-cigarettes since the products emit vapor instead of smoke.

“It’s become the go-to word whenever you want to talk about any form of verbal discourse between two or more people,” said Fry, an Ontario resident, “particularly when you hear on news and television interviews the word ‘conversation’ to describe every discourse known to mankind.”

Unveiled Thursday by Lake Superior State University, the 41st annual list includes 13 words and phrases. Among them: “so” (as in “I am SO over this word), “manspreading” (when men take up too much room on public transit); “presser” (press conference),“break the Internet,” “stakeholder,” “price point,” and “walk it back.” (Check out the whole list in a Detroit News crossword puzzle here or on page 11A of today’s paper.)

LSSU 'Banned Words' in crossword style - The Detroit News

Created in 1976 to draw attention to the state’s smallest university, the list has became a phenomenon around the new year, attracting worldwide nominators, spawning discussions and giving Lake State — located in the Upper Peninsula town of Sault Ste. Marie — a moment to bask in at the beginning of a new year.

The list has grown to include nearly 800 words that have been banished over the decades, including overused words linked to culture, celebrities and politics. Soon, it might become its own lexicon, as some are working to compile the banished words into a dictionary.

“Most of the words and phrases are overused,” said Lake Superior State spokesman Tom Pink, who is among those who assemble the list from thousands of nominations each year. “People get sick about hearing about them.”

The list was created in 1975 by the late W.T. (Bill) Rabe, then Lake Superior State’s spokesman. Rabe had a creative mind, and some said he would have been on the staff of the satirical MAD magazine if he had been based in New York.

He dreamed up events such as rock-skipping on Mackinac Island, and also antics that would get publicity for the university. In 1971, for example, he borrowed a tradition from a German festival and created the annual Snowman Burning on the first day of spring to ward off winter.

The banished words list got its start at a New Year’s Eve party, according to Pink, when Rabe was hanging out with some English professors. The group started talking about the Queen’s Honour List — a list of Brits who are recognized for their public achievements on New Year’s Day, and on the Queen’s birthday. They started joking about a Queen’s dishonor list, and the banished words list evolved.

Rabe also was a stringer for United Press International, a news agency, so he knew how to generate publicity. He woke up on New Year’s Day 1976, wrote a story and sent it some friends in the media in Detroit.

Among the words and phrases on the first list: “macho,” “scenario” and “at this point in time.”

Thousands of words have since been nominated through the university’s website, and also via Facebook, including 2,000 this year.

Mark Dobias, an attorney in Sault Ste. Marie, has nominated words over the years, and a few have made the list, including “decimate” and “job creators/creation.”

“It gives people an opportunity to look at words in the way words are used, and sometimes there are better words,” Dobias said. “It started picking up momentum over the years. I noticed there are some imitators, but this is the one everybody goes to at the end of the year.”

Adam Rosen, an editor at an academic publisher and freelance writer based in Asheville, N.C., loves words and languages and has been paying attention to the banished word list for years. He nominated “problematic.”

“It’s used everywhere,” Rosen said. “It has become a lazy and self-righteous way to explain things people don’t like.”

Karen Newton, who lives in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, can’t stand how politicians use the word “so” to begin statements. “So” made the banished word list this year.

“That is the first thing they say when they don’t want to give a direct answer,” Newton said. “They deviate by using the word ‘so.’ As soon as I hear that, I know I am not going to get the straight goods on the question they were asked.”

Ana Robbins, a student at Lake Superior State, has been working on definition and history of the words on the list to be part of a dictionary she is hoping will get published. Many of the banished words reflect the era, politically and culturally.

“It’s basically a study of the evolution of language ... what was going on at the time that made people annoyed with a word or idea,” Robbins said. “Each list is a blueprint of what people were feeling and what the problems were at the time.”

41st annual List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness


Most nominated and already banished in 1999.

“Currently, it is being overused as the first word in the answer to ANY question. For instance, "How did you learn to play the piano?" Answer: "So my dad was in a classical music club..." – Bob Forrest, Tempe Ariz.

“Tune in to any news channel and you’ll hear it. The word serves no purpose in the sentence and to me is like fingernails on a chalkboard. So, I submit the extra, meaningless, and overused word ‘so.’” – Scott Shackleton, Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

“Politicians, especially, are using this word when asked a question and not answering said question. It is used by all parties in Canada's Federal election. – Karen Newton, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

“Frequently used to begin a sentence, particularly in response to a question, this tiresome and grammatically incorrect replacement for "Like," or "Um," is even more irksome…It hurts my ears, every single time I hear it! -- Thomas H. Weiss, Mt. Pleasant, Mich.

“So it's getting really annoying. So can we please put a stop to this?” -- David G. Simpson, Laurel, Md.


Online publications invite readers to “join the conversation.”

“Over the past five years or so, this word has been increasingly used by talking heads on radio, television and in political circles to describe every form of verbal communication known to mankind. It has replaced ‘discussion,’ ‘debate,’ ‘chat,’ ‘discourse,’ ‘argument,’ ‘lecture,’ ‘talk’….all of which can provide some context to the nature of the communication. Perhaps the users feel that it is a word that is least likely to offend people, but I consider it to be imprecise language that, over time, dumbs down the art of effective discourse.” – Richard Fry, Marathon, Ont.

“Used by every media type without exception. No one listens.” – Richard Seitz, Charleston, Ill.

“Have one, start one, engage in one. Enough.” – Fred Rogers, Houston, Tex.


Defined by the Urban Dictionary as “a corporate-academic weasel word.”

“Somewhere along the line, this word became a trendy replacement for 'that is a problem.’ I just hate it.” -- Sharon Martin, Hagerstown, Md.

“Anything that the speaker finds vaguely inconvenient or undesirable, such as an opposing political belief or bad traffic. Contrast things that are self-evidently taken to be problematic with, say, actual problems like a hole in the ozone layer or a job loss.” -- Adam Rosen, Asheville, N.C.


Used to describe someone with a stake in a situation or problem.

“Often used with ‘engagement.’ If someone is disengaged, they're not really a stakeholder in the first place. LSSU, please engage your stakeholders by adding this pretentious jargon to your list. -- Gwendolyn Barlow, Portland, Ore.

Harley Carter of Calgary, Alberta, says he has heard it with another word popular in business-speak, “socialize,” which means to spread an idea around to see what others think of it. “We need to socialize this concept with our ‘stakeholders.’”

“Dr. (Abraham) Van Helsing should be the only stake holder,” says Jeff Baenen of Minneapolis, Minn., referring to the character in “Dracula.”


Use of two words when one will do.

“This alliterative mutation seems to be replacing the word ‘price’ or ‘cost.’ It may be standard business-speak, but must it contaminate everyday speech?” says Kevin Carney of Chicago, who provided an example in the March 19, 2015 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, pg. 1171, which says, “Although the ‘price point’ of effective new drugs...may initially be out of reach for many patients...”

“It has no ‘point.’ It is just a ‘price.’” -- Guy Michael, Cherry Hill, N.J.


“Usually used in a sentence explaining the ‘secret’ in excruciating public detail. Is this a metaphor for business success based on the fast food industry?” -- John Beckett, Ann Arbor, Mich.

“It has become too frequent in business discussions. I am tired of it.” -- Bill Evans, Clinton, Miss.


A phrase used online

“An annoying bit of hyperbole about the latest saucy picture or controversy that is already becoming trite.” -- Tim Bednall, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

“Meaning a post or video or whatever will have so much Internet traffic that it will ‘break the internet.’ It’s being used for every headline and video. Ridiculous.” -- Matthew Squires, Auburn, Mich.

“I hope the list doesn’t ‘break the internet.’ (How else would I read it next year)?” -- Dean Hinrichs, Kansas City, Mo.


A slower back-pedal.

“It seems as if every politician who makes a statement has to ‘walk it back,’ meaning retract the statement, or explain it in laborious detail to the extent that the statement no longer has any validity or meaning once it has been ‘walked back.’” -- Max Hill, Killeen, Tex.


This shortened form of “press release” and “press conference.”

“Not only is there no intelligent connection between the word "presser" and its supposed meaning, this word already has a definition: a person or device that removes wrinkles. Let's either say ‘press conference’ or ‘press release’ or come up with something more original, intelligent and interesting!” – Constance Kelly, West Bloomfield, Mich.

“This industry buzzword has slipped into usage in news reporting and now that they have started, they can't seem to stop using it.” -- Richard W. Varney, Akron, Ohio.


A word used in urban areass, where seats on the bus or subway are sometimes difficult to find because men are spreading their legs and taking up space.

“Men don't need another disgusting-sounding word thrown into the vocabulary to describe something they do…You're just taking too much room on this train seat, be a little more polite...” – Carrie Hansen, Caledonia, Mich.

“The term itself is stupid, and the campaign and petition written by men's rights activists claiming that men need to take up more space due to their anatomy, and that anti-manspreading campaigns are ‘male-bashing,’ are ridiculous. The problem is with people taking up too much space on the subway or any public mode of transportation. – Beth, Anchorage, Alaska


Used to describe the act of ‘smoking’ e-cigarettes since the products emit vapor instead of smoke.

David Ervin of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., says he hopes the word “goes up in smoke.”


The phrase refers to anything that may excite a person, or something that causes one to laugh.

“I suggest banishing this hyperbole for over-use,” says Ana Robbins, Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.


For sports fans.

John Kollig of Jamestown, N.Y., says this is overused by every sports broadcaster and writer.

“I am not sure who is responsible, but over the last 12-18 months you cannot watch a sporting event, listen to a sports talk show on radio, or anything on ESPN without someone using this term to attempt to describe an athlete or a contest.” -- Dan Beitzel, Perrysburg, Ohio

“Every time I hear them say it, I change the channel.” – Brenda Ruffing, Jackson, Mich.

“What the heck does it mean?” – Linda Pardy, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

Source: Lake Superior State University