Worthless Words

I have written here before about words that should not be used in some contexts where they are technically correct yet exceedingly likely to be misunderstood. The other day I came to the conclusion that there are some words that can’t be used at all because of the confusion they generate.

Two learned reviewers of a mentoring grant were disagreeing as to whether the applicant was providing sufficient support to the mentee. One said the senior mentors and the mentee were not meeting often enough, the other said they were meeting more than enough. Both pointed to the same sentence in the proposal, which mentioned a plan for “biweekly supervision meetings”.

“That means only once every two weeks!” said one reviewer. “No, it means twice a week”, responded the other.

A search of a number of dictionaries on line and in print reveals that they don’t seem to agree either. You are therefore likely to be misunderstood if you use the word “biweekly”, even though you will surely be able to find at least one dictionary that supports your usage. Though rather wordy, “semi-weekly” or “every other week” may be the only solutions.

RBCers: Any other nominees for words that have become worthless due to a lack of shared meaning and attendant near inevitable confusion?

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

39 thoughts on “Worthless Words”

  1. Quite understandably, the word word “niggardly” is not usable as its meaning is so little known and the resulting confusion is very hurtful to listeners. As I recall, a budget official in some gov’t agency lost his job over using that word.

  2. “Utilize” is completely worthless. It says nothing that “use” doesn’t, except “the speaker of this word is self-important”.

    There’s also “deceptively [X]”. Is it [X] even though you wouldn’t think it is, or do you think it’s [X] even though it’s not? Someone who’s “deceptively intelligent”, are they smart or dumb?

  3. Expressions related to time seem particularly vulnerable to this. Is “next Saturday” the 12th or the 19th? Why not use the perhaps old-fashioned “Saturday week” for the 19th? Is 12 AM noon or midnight? Why not just use the words? (I think 12AM is midnight, but I don’t know why it should be.)

  4. I have a candidate appropriate for a blog that features drug policy discussion: “decriminalize”. It is used in so many ways that confusion is almost certain unless it is very carefully defined each time, and by then there should be a better way to say it. It has been pointed out here that “prohibition” of alcohol in the 1920’s probably qualifies as “decriminalization” under most definitions. That said, I think “bi-” and “semi-” are still reasonably clear. I continue to use them and am not ready to give up on them.

  5. But “utilize” is not worthless because it lacks a shared meaning. And some words that lack a shared meaning, such as “sanction,” are not worthless, because in context the intended meaning is clear.

  6. “Inflammable”. Because of dangerous confusion, it’s largely been replaced by “flammable”, with the antonym being “non-flammable”.

  7. People use “ten times bigger” to mean “ten times as big”, which isn’t the same thing — I’d call that “nine times bigger”. I’d be inclined not to use it for that reason; the only counterargument is that the thing I’m calling wrong might be so widespread that it is, in fact, well understood by everyone except me.

  8. All the older words that deal with status: to talk about historicla social structures, ‘gentleman” has a specific meaning and it isn’t “nice and financially secure.”

    Related are the words that have become pejoratives, or group identifiers–fundamentalist and liberal would be two good examples. (Describing Neuhaus as a fundamentalist is rather confused, as is Locke and Mill not being liberal.)

  9. DonBoy, I have the same pet peeve.

    Also when people say that something is “300 % less”.
    Hey – 100% is all there is, do you mean “1/3 as much”, or “reduced by 2/3” ?

    A related area : When a percentage (market share, public opinion etc) rises from 20% to 30%, it is “50% more” and people interpret that as meaning “50 percentage points greater” or “overwhelming support”.

    Ahh but we started out talking about words, and now I have digressed into a discussion of how a large amount of Americans (including many journalists) are functionally innumerate.

  10. col_lib beat me to it. No one should ever use percentages except in the following two cases:

    1) when describing fractional composition (e.g. “12% alcohol by volume”, “99.9% pure”).
    2) when describing interest rates (and then only with qualification about how they are compounded, so as to avoid deception).

  11. “Cleave” is a bit old-fashioned, but does mean “stick to” and “split apart”.

    “Sanction” is in much more common use these days, what with opponents of the current regime in Libya calling for sanctions against the regime while sanctioning the actions of the rebels.

  12. @ Ken

    I agree, “bi-” means twice, and “semi-” (and its cousins “hemi-” and “demi-“) means half. But the word biweekly is ambiguous, according to the dictionaries. It can mean either twice a week (in which case the prefix is modifying the noun the adverb is modifying) or every other week (in which case the prefix is modifying the noun “week” used to form the adverb). Personally, I don’t think prefixes ought to be allowed to modify outside their scope (that is, the word they belong to). So, if I say “biweekly”, I mean every other week. But the fact is, the usage is ambiguous and shouldn’t be used in contractual language without definition. Since no one will read the definitions until a dispute arises, it’s better just to say “twice each week” or “every other week.”

  13. “X, if not Y”. For example: “Quadaffi is unstable, if not actually crazy”. This might mean “unstable, BUT not actually crazy”. Or it might mean the nearly the opposite: “at least unstable, and possibly even crazy”. In spoken language, you can usually tell from intonation, but in written text it’s useless.

  14. Dennis:

    I agree that judgment is called for. But does is anyone confused by “biennial” or “semi-annual”? These prefixes should be used with care, the alternatives my be better in many situations. I do not favor wholesale abandonment.

  15. I once worked with a guy who had come from Hong Kong. He said that he was constantly missing highway exits because the signs here would say “Main St. Next Exit” which meant that one coming up. In Hong Kong that means the one after the exit coming up. The exit coming up was “This Exit”.

  16. I read somewhere about a trade negotiation between American and Japanese businessmen that broke down after the Americans declared that they and the Japanese had many parallel interests, meaning shared interests which could serve as the basis for fruitful discussions. The Japanese, however, interpreted “parallel” as meaning interests that would never intersect or come together. Therefore, discussion was pointless.

    Related issues: saying irregardless when you really mean regardless; saying “I could care less,” when you really mean “I could not care less.”

  17. I called something “fair” the other day and had to explain that I meant it was impartial and reasonable, not that it was less than good.

  18. Re Bernard’s comment on time: “half six” can mean half an hour before six (especially in German) or half an hour after six (in British).

    One word I hate is “interestingly”. It’s a perfectly good word, and I’ll admit that I use it myself – but in the context of a formal written argument (such as a research paper), it’s a killer. Either it means that the following observation actually isn’t interesting but the author would like you to grant it that status regardless, or it means that the following observation actually is interesting but the author doesn’t trust you the reader to be capable of appreciating how interesting it is. If the former, the reader feels that the author tried to pull a fast one, and if the latter the reader feels that the author doesn’t respect them, or perhaps the author doesn’t trust their own ability to convey how interesting the observation is, and instead has simply punted and just arbitrarily declared it to be interesting.

  19. I’ve never had a problem knowing what “biweekly” means. It means every other week. Twice a month would be semi-monthly, and I assume (though I’ve never seen it used) that twice a week would be semi-weekly. To those who assert that biweekly and semi-monthly amount to the same thing, they don’t, because there are approximately 4.3 weeks in the average month (February is a noted exception, as it usually contains exactly four weeks and sometimes ~ 4.14). For a real world example of the difference, my wife is paid semi-monthly (the 15th of the month or the business day immediately prior thereto, and the last business day of the month). She thus receives 24 paychecks per year. This is very convenient because our obligations (mortgage, utilities, etc.) are mapped to the calendar month. Even those that are due less often than monthly (water, garbage, insurance, property taxes) are due on the same day of every 3rd, sixth, or 12th month. By contrast, I am paid biweekly (every other Friday), and thus I receive 26 paychecks per year. These do not coincide very well with my monthly obligations, as the dates are all over the place, and twice a year I get three paychecks in a single month.

  20. I like others have been plagued with this very same problem.

    Then there’s the issue of bisexuality. Does it mean sex with two sexes, or does it mean sex with every other sex?

  21. “Decimated” and “exponentially” are almost always misused.
    The first historically meant to reduce by one tenth, i.e. by killing one Roman soldier in ten.
    Most people should probably avoid the second, unless they can show the math.

    In a true “quantum leap”, the beginning and final states are discreet, and the changing value does not slide from one to the other through the range of intermediate values.

    “Moot point” and “beg the question” are so commonly misused to mean just the opposite of their historical meanings that they are becoming ambiguous.

    “Comprise” is very often used as a synonym for “compose”. It is not.

  22. Similarly to Gary’s comment, “cannot understate” and “cannot underestimate” seem frequently and inexplicably to be used to mean “cannot (easily) overstate” and “cannot (easily) overestimate”, respectively.

    Also, I was interested that in citing your previous post on linguistic confusion you didn’t also link your post “two nations separated by a common language”.

  23. One of my pet peeves, as an editor of preclinical testing reports to the FDA, is the use of “3-fold” to refer to a decrease. Saying a “3-fold increase” is odd enough (is that a 300% increase, or a 400% increase?). What could it possibly mean to say that “levels of X decreased 3-fold”?

  24. @Lynn Johannesen

    Saying a “3-fold increase” is odd enough (is that a 300% increase, or a 400% increase?).

    You left out the 200% possibility (from x to 3x, meaning it has increased by 200% of x). This because your own sentence has the confusion over meaning of “(relative) increase” that you decry.

  25. “literally” is often used to mean “not literally”

    most things said to be awesome are trivially good, and are not capable of provoking awe

    neither “liberal” nor “conservative” have much remaining meaning in US political discourse

  26. Orwell complained about “democratic”, iirc. I have a problem with “right(s)”. Some people (Libertarians and Christian conservatives and at least one authon on this site) get mystical about the meaning (or, origin) of “rights”.

  27. God seems to me to be the most undefined and misused word in common usage. The bearded man in the sky to the consciousness of the universe. Have we any idea what we are talking about with each other?

  28. I agree with Andrew. It is common to be paid bi-weekly meaning paid every other week. I’ve never heard of biweekly being used to mean twice a week. Someone was just playing with words because it *could* mean twice a week but the standard common usage is every other week.

  29. Many great comments, thanks all. Theophylact: That’s a good point about fortnightly, I wonder if that came about to get around this problem…but I don’t think I have heard people in the U.S. use this word, only in the U.K.

  30. “bad” meaning “not bad”

    as in:
    They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother
    I’m talkin’ ’bout Shaft.

    “cool” and “hot” (common usage in both cases employs both positive and negative meanings)

  31. I’m not sure if this would count or not, but I’d offer “comprise.” I hear and read this word very often used synonymously with “compose.” Yet I learned it as a kind of complement to compose, ie, many things compose a whole; a whole comprises many things. I like this complementarity of meaning between the two, but it’s lost if there’s no agreement on what “comprise” means. Most dictionaries I consult tell me either is okay.

  32. Whenever I hear or read a social scientist or health policy type use “actionable” to mean something that can be put into practice, I cringe. I remember that saying that X was “actionable” formerly meant X was the grounds for a lawsuit.

  33. @Stolen Don’t both those actionables basically come from the same meaning though? As in, you can take action based on it? If you restrict that to only being grounds for legal action, then that implies to me that “action” should also only mean “legal action” (which itself very unobviously is accepted to mean a lawsuit rather than an action which is legal to perform). That may be the case in legal discussions but not in general English. You could also say that evidence of a crime is actionable, meaning that it enables police to make an arrest.

    I must admit that until reading this I though biweekly and semiweekly though exactly the opposite of what they actually do mean. That is bad news for you guys hoping “semiweekly” is clearer!

    And I definitely agree with WarrenTerra, a threefold increase is a 200% increase, which means it has increased by a factor of three (which means it has tripled). When I hear “increase by three times”, though, I have no idea what that should mean.

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