Out With Them!


By Elaine Viets

I was listening to a talk radio show when I heard something like this:

“You’ve given us a lot to unpack here, Bill,” the host said. “Destructive weather events are becoming the new normal in these uncertain times.”
The guest blathered, “Yes, we’re all in this –

No! I switched off the radio before he finished saying, “We’re all in this together.
I’ve learned to live with many of the old cliches and misused words. I no longer cringe when someone says, “Irregardless.”
But these uh, uncertain times have spawned a new and even more annoying crop of cliches. They’re infesting our language like termites. My husband Don is tired of listening to me gripe. But I can tell you, can’t I, dear reader?

Here is my list of words and phrases I’d like to see banned. I hope they don’t creep into our conversation – or worse, our writing.

UNPACK. Usually suitcases are unpacked – we remove the contents and put them away. But lately unpack has been used in another way: to consider, to analyze, to reveal. Webster says that use is legit, but it rubs me the wrong way. Never mind that Shakespeare himself used it, during Hamlet’s rant (uh, soliloquy):

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab

PROCESS. After you unpack something, you need time to process it. “After my mother died, it took a long time to process her death.” What the heck? Are you a computer?

EVENT. Here’s another one that gets me. A tornado trashes an entire town, killing innocent people and destroying their homes. And what does the media call it? “A weather event.”
Why? Do you sell tickets to a tornado?

LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL. Something we’re not seeing these days, but the media keeps saying it’s there. This phrase has been around for maybe two hundred years. Some sources say it goes back to the 1800s and was used “in a letter by English novelist George Eliot.” John F. Kennedy made it popular in the mid-1960s when he talked about Vietnam. The phrase can be either one of hope – or despair.


GIVE 110 PERCENT. Mostly said by corporate types. Can you folks even add?

BAD OPTICS. PR speak for “this looks bad.” For instance, “Widgets Inc. cut ties with their foreign supplier when they found out the supplier used child labor.” Did Widgets care about those toiling tots? Heck no. But they were worried what their customers would think.

EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON. Usually said after some especially senseless tragedy. Often followed by another favorite phrase: “thoughts and prayers.”

Covid has spawned a crop of cliches:

IN THESE UNCERTAIN TIMES. A euphemism for “in these hopelessly screwed-up times.” And unless we’re fortune tellers, almost all times are uncertain. We can’t see the future.

IT IS WHAT IT IS. A mental shrug. An annoying way of saying, “I don’t want to do anything about it.” Politicians as far back as George Bush have used it and it’s the favorite excuse in sports. Your Dictionary says, one famous example was when the coach of the US hockey team at the 2006 Winter Olympics excused his team’s “lack of rest by saying, ‘We’re going to do the best that we can. It is what it is.’”
If it will make you feel any better, other languages also have versions of this, according to Your Dictionary: “In Persian, ‘Fihi Ma Fihi’ means the same thing and was the title of a famous work by Rumi, a 13th century writer. In Spanish, the phrase ‘Que será, será’ means ‘what will be, will be.’ This is a somewhat more optimistic twist on the idea.” Doris Day made that phrase into a song.

LESS THAN. In mathematics it means smaller. Four is less than six. But the term is less than satisfactory when it strays in to everyday language. It’s wrong to make people feel “less than.” Less than what?

LIVING MY BEST LIFE. Oh? You get more than one? Lucky you. Like it or not, I’m already living my best life – now.

NEW NORMAL. The new normal not only isn’t normal, it’s not even new. Wikipedia, for heaven’s sake, points out that every time we have a major crisis, we dig up that term and dust it off. It seems to have appeared the first time in 1918, right after World War I. Henry A. Wise Wood spelled it out for us: “How shall we pass from war to the new normal with the least jar, in the shortest time? In that respect should the new normal be shaped to differ from the old?”
Pundits have been working variations on that theme after the 1990s Dot-Com Bubble, the financial crisis of 2007-2008, September 11 attacks, the aftermath of the 2008–2012 global recession, and now – the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The New Normal” was a TV show and country singer Cooper Alan even has a love song called “New Normal.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=poBwXChcvCY

So which words or phrases are driving you nuts in these . . .um . . .difficult times? Go ahead. You can tell us.

Now out! DEATH GRIP, my new Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery. Kirkus magazine says, “Viets produces chills with a murder hunt turned on its head.” Buy it here: https://tinyurl.com/ya9q9tfm

58 thoughts on “Out With Them!

  1. Whoa. Elaine. I think I’ve been channeling you, or you are channeling me.

    I came across “unpack” recently for the first time. Where did that start? And with whom? They should be sentenced to a six-month period of self-imposed silence.

    “Processing” drives me nuts. Especially when followed by a self-administered head thump.

    “Circle back.” I am guilty of using this but try not to, in favor of the tried and true “get back.”

    “Share with you.” It’s okay with a Kit-Kat Bar or a Twix. Otherwise…no.

    Then there is “Thank you for sharing your concerns.” I heard this recently during a parent-teacher conference involving my granddaughter. It seems to be unpac…er…used in circumstances where a parent is becoming irate. I told my son — the parent in the parent-teacher conference, “That phrase is the equivalent of ‘God Bless You’ when used in Nashville.”

    “In these uncertain times.” I’ve been using this sarcastically since I first heard it. I am still surprised when folks nod somberly in response.

    I don’t feel so alone anymore, Elaine. Thanks so much!

  2. Unfortunately, human beings are creatures of (lazy) habit. Especially in these uncertain times it is easier to take the path of least resistance and unpack a few trite clichés than to actually come up with an original thought. It simply is what it is.

  3. Begs the question

    This phrase was specific to formal debate, meaning someone assumed a point without proving it. But slowly people started using is as “invites the question: ____?” It is now used this way ubiquitously, but still grates upon my delicate sensibilities.

    At the end of the day

    When all is said and done (or when the dust settles) this phrase will take its place in the Overused Cliche Hall of Fame.

  4. Thanks for pointing these out. Sometimes there are advantages to living a reclusive existence with very little desire to listen to newscasters. That’s the Hubster’s job, and he fills me in on the high points without the word usage. I’m happy in my little bubble. I still cringe when I read ‘alright’.

  5. Ooh, I just noticed a new one, or at least new to me. When NASA’s equipment descends to a celestial body now, it no longer takes photos. Now it “images the surface.” 🙂

  6. Great post, Elaine. I feel your pain. Thoughts and prayers. But before I get too far out over my skies, let me segue into a response to the new normal. I’ll unpack it for you:

    In high school, “this is true” became the rage as a response to anything someone else said. It so infuriated the Latin club that we began replacing “this is true” with the Latin, “Hoc verum est.”

    If you can’t beat them, join them (with a ridiculous response). It is what it is.

  7. The COVID edition:
    In these unprecedented times – No.
    New Normal – also no.
    Return to normal – not happening.

    Just drives me nuts edition:
    Historic election – Guess what? Every time the US changes government it is historic.
    Reach out – Ask for help. Sales jargon is the worst.
    Touch base – Unless a ball and bat are involve, no. We can meet.

  8. Elaine, I feel your pain and disdain for these phrases. In some cases, I think overuse or use without real feeling have robbed a phrase of impact. “Our hearts go out” is one that likely originally held some real emotion, but which has become so rote now as to seem really pat, at least to my ears. Then there are those that at least sound like misuses–“optics,” which you mentioned above. “The optics on this policy don’t look good,” just sounds weird to me, even though it’s in common usage by political journalists.

    Some Covid-19 pandemic terms resonate with me, though I admit to overusing them myself–“the Before time” and “the After time.” I tend to use “these strange days” to describe our current time, because, compared to what went before, these days do indeed seem strange, though at this point staying at home and socially distance seems the norm (I’ll do my all to avoid using “the new normal.”)

    Oh, and another vote for banishing “at the end of the day” to the closet of cliches 🙂

    Thanks for an interesting and fun post!

  9. I would be thrilled not to hear the following expressions anymore:

    cancel culture.

    Oh and mashups of a couple’s name, like “Brangelina.”

  10. I’m right there with you, Elaine. All of the phrases you mentioned drive me insane. “Unprecedented” should be banned from television. First of all, these are NOT unprecedented times. Throughout history pandemics changed people’s lives to a “new normal,” which I also despise. The only thing unprecedented about it is the modern ego who feels public health is someone else’s problem.

    • If I never see or hear the word “unprecedented” again, I can die happy. Along with “breaking news,” and “this just in.” Along with all the breathless delivery that goes with such galvanizing stories.

      “Thoughts and prayers” used to mean something deep and personal. It has become a rote phrase for addressing brutal horrors but doesn’t begin to skim the surface of the impact on lives lost and the lives of those left behind.

      As a veteran, I’ve grown to feel that, for many people, saying “Thank you for your service” is too easy, allowing them to avoid any true understanding of the depths of everything that sacrifice entails for the service member and their family. Or maybe it’s because so often it’s as though once people discover you’ve served, they feel required to respond in the current socially acceptable manner before getting on with their day. It’s similar to the years when everyone said (and some stores made it a requirement for their employees), “Have a good day” and plastered yellow smiley faces everywhere. Instead of meeting someone’s eyes and giving them a genuine smile, we could all mumble the phrase du jour and keep on moving.

      Rant over. But, man, did that feel good. Thank you for the opportunity, Elaine.

  11. Oh, Elaine, thank you, thank you for allowing us to rant. I agree with most all of these…I itched to throw my shoe at the radio the other day. I heard a lot of these tired phrases when I had a day job in medicine. I sat in leadership meetings in permanent cringe mode.

    My contribution: BREAKING NEWS!

    Chances are it’s not breaking, it’s not new, and it’s not news.

    Thanks for the opportunity to unpack, process, reach out and circle back with y’all. 🙂

  12. Do you know why Covid has become “these uncertain times?” YouTube and other platforms decided that “Covid,” “quarantine,” and “pandemic” may mean that the content, even ads, offers the wrong information. So, no info is better than bad info. Gotta love them lazy algorithms.

  13. “110% effort” – as a math major, I’d like to penalize anyone who says this by making them take a remedial course in arithmetic.
    “spot on” – makes me wonder if there’s a “spot off”
    “This is the most important election in the history of our country” – It could be true if every election is more important than the one before.

    I don’t actually mind shorthand ways of saying things, but when it becomes a substitute for thinking, “I’m not buying it.”

    • Yep, Kay. Math has never been my strong suit, but even I no there’s no such thing as 110% effort. Did we steal “spot on” from the Brits? If so, we should give it back.

  14. Elaine, I couldn’t agree more with you, along with all the cliche catchers who commented.

    My pet peeve word predates current cliche lexicon, dating back to Valley Girl speak of the 1980s. Unfortunately this word has stubbornly stuck around to the present day and shows no signs of fading away.


    She’s, like, going to the store.
    He’s, like, so into her it’s crazy.

    I’m, like, so sick of like as, like, this useless modifier that invades, like, perfectly clear sentences as if it, like, adds something meaningful. Like, totally, ya know.

  15. One more!
    Eradicate. Smallpox was identified in ancient Egypt. The vaccine developed in the 1770s. Smallpox was eradicated in the US and Europe in the 1950s. That is 200 years later. Eradicated world wide in the 1980s. The polio vaccine developed in the 1950s. Eliminated from the US in the 1990s. There are still a few hundred cases a year worldwide. It won’t be eradicated for at least 30 more years. That is the end of eradicated harmful human diseases.

    COVID might become controllable in a few years. Eradicated? maybe 100. Most likely, never.

    • “Eradicated” is questionable. I believe there are still live samples of the smallpox virus and possibly other deadly viruses stored in a couple of labs. One of them is the CDC in Atlanta.

  16. Your article is certainly informing the current narrative as to how should look at things moving forward, of course.

  17. SO 110% agree with all of the above posts. Not over the top at all. Easy-peasy.

    In addition and also:

    “Throw (add a proper noun) under the bus”.

    I cringe every time I hear this. Maybe it’s a redo of throw (add a proper noun) to the wolves? Back when we didn’t have buses, just wolves? Or before some crazy person actually threw some innocent person under an actual bus?

    Whatever, actually.

    Great post Elaine Viets and thanks for the opportunity to rant.

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