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14 Overused Words That Have Lost Their Meaning Over Time

Thanks to the evolution of language, technology, and lots of hyperbole, these words used to convey a lot more merit, emotion, or simply seriousness than they do nowadays.

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Genius

Ah, “genius.” Once reserved for people of “exceptional” and “extraordinary” intellect and/or creativity—Albert Einstein, Shakespeare, and the like—today people use “genius” to laud pretty much anyone who comes up with a helpful solution or performs a routine fix. Deservedly so or no, you may well have been called a “genius” so often that it hardly even seems like a compliment in most circumstances. Is the dilution of “genius,” and the following comparable words, a “good” or “bad” thing? That certainly depends on who you ask. But there’s no denying that, as the popular, prevailing meanings of words change, they often drift farther and farther away from the “correct” meaning.

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Hero

This is a similar word to “genius”—it used to convey far more merit and accomplishment than it does now. According to dictionary.com, a hero is “a person noted for courageous acts or nobility of character.” But you’ve surely heard people called “heroes” left and right for performing just simple acts of human decency—not a very high bar for heroism! While “hero” has always been a good thing, these 11 words used to be insults, but are now compliments!

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Literally

You knew this one had to be in there. This is less the case of a word changing meaning, or being used hyperbolically, and more just a case of…people not really knowing what the word means. When something is literal, it means exactly what the words mean—no exaggeration or descriptive embellishments. So, no, if you ate lunch a few hours ago, you’re not “literally starving” while waiting for dinner. But with the massive surge of this word as an emphasizer, it’s very easy to forget the literal meaning of “literally.”

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Talk

The dictionary definition of “talk” is “to communicate or exchange ideas, information, etc., by speaking.” And, while that is still the technical meaning, it has developed another digital-age meaning. People will often have purely digital conversations and still consider it “talking.” If you’re “talking” to a cute guy you met at a party, are you actually speaking to him, or just having a conversation via text? We may never know. Certainly not if you don’t elaborate on the situation besides just using the word “talk.” Next time you’re talking with someone (however you define it), try using these fancy words that make you sound smarter.

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Laugh

Be honest: When’s the last time you responded “LOL” to something that actually, genuinely made you Laugh Out Loud? Even if you do use it to describe actual laughing, those times are probably far fewer than the times that you just sent it off as a rapid-fire response to something only mildly amusing. To be fair, “LOL” has become such a popular expression that it’s kind of taken on a meaning of its own, separate from the trio of words that brought it into being.

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Hacked

Here’s another one that the modern technology surge has given a much less effective meaning. In the technological sense, a “hack” is the illegal access of a computer or network, often with malicious intent. If your friend or sibling gave you a goofy profile picture when you accidentally left your Facebook open or took a barrage of close-up selfies while pretending to take a flattering shot of you, well…you’ve hardly been “hacked.” To be fair, this is definitely one that people at least started saying as an exaggerated joke. Check out these other examples of hyperbole you probably use all the time.

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Ecstatic

You text your roommate that you’re ecstatic because the grocery store finally had your favorite flavor of ice cream, a pint of which you’re bringing home to snack on. Now, you might be happy, pleased, or thrilled…but are you ecstatic? The state of being ecstatic is “a state of sudden, intense, overpowering emotion,” especially of “rapturous delight.” Looking at that definition, it probably seems better suited to the moment when the love of your life proposes to you, or says yes to your proposal, than a pleasant surprise on a shopping trip. But, hey, if you do get such extreme, euphoric levels of happiness from little things like that, well, more power to you!

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Devastated

Similar to “ecstatic” but with an opposite connotation, “devastate” technically means “to lay waste” or “to render desolate,” or “to reduce to chaos, disorder, or helplessness.” But, because of its frequent use (especially in its adjective/past-tense-verb form) to describe the negative emotional effects of something that’s not hugely impactful or upsetting, it’s become a far less weighty word than those definitions suggest. These words’ meanings might have changed, but there are some other words that actually mean the complete opposite of what they used to.

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Random

YouTube’s Vsauce says it best: “If something is unpredictable and contains no recognizable patterns, we call it random.” This definition, with a specific reference to patterns and predictability, came about in the 1800s. But nowadays—from the 1970s onward—”random” can describe anything or anyone that seems weird, goofy, or out of place—even if it’s entirely predictable. Dictionary.com has this definition, but throws a little bit of linguistic shade by calling it “slang.”

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Lie

“My keys are on the table. Oh wait, I lied—they’re in my room.” Raise your hand if you’ve said something like this—something wrong or inaccurate that you thought was the truth, and then hastily corrected yourself with “I lied.” But…did you? According to dictionary.com, a lie is “a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive.” Sure, maybe you were wrong about your keys, or you messed up or misspoke, but you didn’t “lie.” Read on for more words that don’t mean quite what you think they do.

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Actually

“Actually” seems to have a pretty straightforward meaning—”in point of fact; used to suggest something unexpected.” It represents a contradictory or surprising actuality: “I know it’s your least favorite candy, but I actually like black licorice.” But…have you ever said something like this? Someone asks you, “Where do you work?” and you reply, “I actually work at Costco.” There was no contradiction to address; you’re just answering the question. There’s no reason for the word “actually” to be there; the sentence means the same thing without it. People often toss “actually” into a sentence like this where it doesn’t belong, as nothing more than a meaningless filler word. “Actually” deserves better!

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Ironic

Many people use “ironic” to describe something that’s coincidental, inauspicious, or unexpected, but that’s not what it really means. It’s more specific, describing something that’s the exact opposite of what you expect. So, no…rain on your wedding day is not ironic, just unfortunate. The fact that the inventor of the stop sign didn’t know how to drive—now that‘s ironic, as are these 29 other hilarious real-life irony examples.

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Forever

This is another victim of hyperbole. At one time a word filled with gravitas, meaning a limitless, never-ending amount of time, forever is now more commonplace. Depending on your level of patience, “it took forever” can mean ten minutes or forty-five minutes or three hours. In addition to truly meaning “forever,” it can also just mean any amount of time that feels like a long time to wait.

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Destroy

“That destroyed me,” you say. Are you talking about a debilitating illness? The loss of a loved one? Or…a meme that made you laugh because of how much you relate to it? In a prime example of hyperbole, it’s become common to say that something non-destructive “destroyed” you—whether funny like a crazy cat video or shocking like an unforeseen TV show twist. These overused words might have strayed from their original meaning, but there are plenty of other words you’ve just been using wrong.

Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.