Some Annoying Words and Phrases to ‘Absolutely’ Avoid in 2016

COMMENTARY: I do understand that the meanings of words change over time. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

(photo: Shutterstock/kenary820)

I like words, and I like etymologies (the study of the origins and root meanings of words). I am also prone to express a certain grief when words stray from their original, proper or biblical meanings. I do understand that the meanings of words change over time. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

So here are some word rants from me, if you can stand it, along with the request to resolve in the new year to avoid them all. Please realize that I make most of these remarks with a dose of mirth. I am not seeking to be harsh or curmudgeonly. To some extent, I am just poking fun at the likes of us all.

To begin, as the new year dawns, I propose a severe curtailing of an absolutely overused word.

For indeed (and in speech), one of the most overused terms in modern speech is the word “absolutely.” For example, one might hear: “Do you want some gravy with those potatoes?” And the answer comes back: “Absolutely!” Or: “Would you agree that solution ‘X’ is the best solution to problem ‘Y’?” “Absolutely!”

What should we call this use of “absolutely”? An expression? A semantic substitution for “Yes?” A logism? A hyperbole? A grandiloquence? A periphrasis? Why this obsession with saying “absolutely” or its strange stepsister — “exactly!”?

It is a strange paradox that, in an age of relativism, an age that emphasizes personal opinion and subjective feelings over objective truth, so many people substitute for “yes” words like “absolutely,” “exactly,” “precisely,” “positively” and so forth.

Perhaps we subconsciously seek certainty in an age of uncertainty. Or perhaps, in an age of hypersensitivity, we seek to overemphasize to people that we are “100% on board” with what they have said or proposed.

Perhaps people are using “absolutely” merely as hyperbole.

Avoid saying “absolutely!” for three reasons:

  1. It’s getting annoying. I think it has surpassed “you know” and “like” on the annoyance meter.
  2. You don’t really mean it. It’s more likely that you just mean “Yes” or “I’m generally on board with what you said.” So say what you mean and own it.
  3. Even for those of us who do not come from an “everything’s relative” mindset, affirming things “absolutely” is not usually recommended. There’s an old saying (playful in its own way): “Seldom affirm; never deny; always distinguish.” In other words, most statements, positions, views, rules, etc. admit of exceptions, need context or require distinctions. Few things are “absolutely” the case. Even commandments like “Thou shalt not kill” require some distinctions and context. Thus, in the commandment, “kill” is used more in the sense of “murder.” For, in rare cases, one is able to kill as a last recourse if it is necessary to save one’s own life (self-defense) or the lives of others. Further, “killing” is often distinguished to mean premeditated, intentional killing (first-degree murder) and other lesser degrees, such as accidental killing due to irresponsibility (manslaughter), etc. So even if someone asks, “So would you agree with me that killing people is wrong?” it should not usually produce the answer, “Absolutely!” or “Exactly!”

Now, there ARE absolute moral norms: such as “Never kill the innocent” and “Never blaspheme God.” But most things admit of exceptions (even if rare) and are not in fact “absolute.”

Does my assertion that most things are not absolute seem dangerous to you? Of course it does, because we live in an age of excessive relativism. But we ought not to overreact by insisting that more things are absolute than actually are or that the only certainty is absolute certainty. Most rules, norms and teachings do have exceptions, and most of what we know has varying degrees of certainty. Most of us who have faith can be most certain about what God has definitively revealed. But even here, simply pulling a quote from the Bible or the Catechism is not enough. We need to understand a given truth or line from the Bible in the context of the whole of revealed truth, which sometimes qualifies, balances or distinguishes it.

The bottom line is: Avoid saying “absolutely,” though I don’t mean this absolutely. Jesus gets the last word:

“Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37).

Can I get an “Absolutely!”? Err … I mean, can I get an “Amen!”?

And while we’re at it, how about a few other annoying expressions and usages to avoid in the coming new year:


1. “With all due respect …” What this phrase usually and actually means is that the recipient isn’t going to get any respect. When you open an email and it begins, “With all due respect, Mr. Jones …’ don’t you just wince and know that this message is going to be really bad? In a way, the expression is a form of lip service, as if to say, “I want to dispense with the silly tradition of having to accord some modicum of respect to you, given your title or position, and get on to what was really on my mind, namely, that you’re all wrong and probably clueless as well. And of course, be assured I say this with all due respect …” Avoid this phrase; just say what you need to say respectfully, without announcing how respectful you mean to come off. Just BE respectful.

2. Decimate — Most people use this word today as meaning “to utterly destroy.” So one might say, “Our culture has really been decimated by no-fault divorce.” But decimate did not mean originally “to utterly destroy.” Decimate means to reduce something by a tenth (deci = 10). The word comes from the Roman practice of reducing rebellious town populations by a 10th. In effect, the message was: “You mess with the Romans, and this is what you get. It’ll be worse next time.” Alas, trying to recover the original meaning of this word may be a lost cause at this point. The word may be destined to go the way of other Latin-based words such as “manufacture,” which meant literally in Latin “handmade” (manu = hand, facere = to make), but now means just the opposite. Other English-based words have also reversed meanings, so that we drive in parkways and park on driveways.

3. Service — There is a tendency, especially from government officials, to take the noun “service” and turn it into a verb. And so it is common to hear someone say, “We service our clients” or “We serviced 50 people last month.” No! People are served, not serviced. Perhaps you may speak of a car as being serviced, but people are served. Frankly, too, the word evokes the world of prostitution, where prostitutes often speak of “servicing” their “Johns” (i.e. clients). For the record, avoid using nouns as verbs. All this verbing is weirding me out.

4. Not unlike — This strange expression, in a way, cancels itself out as a double negative. For example, someone may say, “This car is not unlike that car.” Trying to figure out exactly what the sentence means may very well make your head explode. In fact, it strains the meaning of the word “sentence,” which refers to a string of words that make sense. Perhaps, in the sentence above, the person means to say this car is not like that car. Or maybe he or she means just the opposite, since not + un means “is,” doesn’t it? (negative + negative = positive). Then perhaps the sentence means this car is like that car. Like I say, it can make your head explode. So try to avoid making heads explode by not using the expression “not unlike.”

5. Proactive — This is another strange word that has crept into our vocabulary. How is “proactive” so different than active? One might argue that there’s a temporal dimension here. Hence one who is “proactive” is one who is actually ahead of his time. But, usually, we use the prefix “pre” in temporal references, as in “pre-emptive” or “prediction.” To be honest, in the sentence “He is a proactive person” I’m not exactly sure what is really meant here. I think the speaker intends to indicate something positive, such that the person is sort of “ahead of the curve” or something. Honestly, it is just not all that clear what the word “proactive” means, at least to me. But maybe I’m just being reactive.

6. Utilize — Why not just say “use”? This oddity is beginning to diminish, and none too soon. I live for the day when we no longer use “utilize.”

7. Intellectually dishonest — How is being “intellectually dishonest” different from being just plain dishonest? Is not honesty or dishonesty always rooted in the intellect and manifest in speech? If there are some other types of dishonesty, such as, say, emotional dishonesty or physical dishonesty or verbal dishonesty, I have never heard such qualifiers attached. So if someone says, “You are being intellectually dishonest,” it seems to me that is just a highfalutin way of saying you’re being dishonest.

8. “Are you suggesting …?” — This is a common expression that prefaces a question, usually by members of the mainstream media. Thus a member of the media may ask someone such as me, “Are you suggesting that people who don’t follow the teachings of the Church are in error?” There’s a part of me that wants to answer, “I am not suggesting anything. I’m saying it outright!” But here, too, the phrase seems to serve a relativist climate where people “suggest” rather than say or claim. But let me be clear, as one NOT influenced by relativism to a large decree, when I am asked a question, I state an answer. I do not suggest an answer, and neither should you, at least when it comes to faith or morals. Do not suggest the faith: Say what you mean; mean what you say. But don’t say it meanly.

Well, okay, feel free to add to my little list of annoying words and expressions to avoid in the new year. But let’s not be like the politically correct crowd and become like language police either. My observations are made more in humor than in a desire to stamp out stuff. Language has a fluidity that must be respected even by etymological wonks like me. So if you want to add to the list of annoyances, do so, but do it with humor and panache.

Msgr. Charles Pope is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington.