Susie Dent

Susie Dent

… on the words we hate

After reaching out to her Twitter followers, the lexicographer discovered there are a huge number of words and phrases they’d love to ban.

The Countdown filming schedule is pretty vigorous – five shows a day, three days in a row – so lunch breaks tend to involve the kicking off of heels and a happy collapse into the nearest available chair (an action otherwise known, in the 18th century, as “sossing”. I like the idea of sossing and sighing at the same time).

A few weeks ago, I happily reclined and picked up my phone to post my word of the day on Twitter. Only that day, for some reason, I was feeling a little mischievous, so I decided to ask people instead for the top words and phrases they would like banned from the dictionary.

Now, on the face of it, this might seem harmless. But the fact is that I have spent my career explaining how dictionary-makers never prescribe how words should be used – instead we describe how they are already being used. And if enough people begin to use sentences like “I literally died laughing”, then we will expand the definition of “literally” to mean, well, non-literal things (sure enough that was done quite a few years ago now, not without controversy).

So for me to even suggest that I had the power to remove words from the dictionary was a little naughty. It must have taken all of two minutes to send it, whereupon I ate my sandwich and returned to the studio for another three shows that afternoon.

Much later, I reopened Twitter to find I had opened a hornet’s nest. I had more than 2,500 responses from people who found certain aspects of English extremely disgruntling. I’d anticipated some of them: “aw, bless”, for example, as well as “my bad” and “I’m not gonna lie”. But these were clearly but tiny icicles on the top of a very large glacier.


I had more than 2,500 responses from people who found certain aspects of English extremely disgruntling.

So, without further ado, and with all due respect, I’m going to take a deep dive into the lexicon we love to hate and then circle back in case there isn’t quite enough bandwidth to do it justice. In which case we can take it all offline, get our ducks in a row, pivot if we need to, and even fundamentally shift the metrics if that’s what you require.

As you can see, jargon comes in for a lot of flak. I confess I’ve always rather liked it – not the meaningless, “low-hanging fruit” kind, but the type that forms part of a language that unites groups of people and is both fun and expedient. We all speak it, after all, as it’s not just businesses that use tribal languages. Whether we’re beekeepers or paramedics, birders or golfers, Freemasons or undertakers, we each have a lexicon that belongs uniquely to us and that only insiders can fully understand.

Even the business kind can be fun – you can’t help but smile when you hear that a firm wanting to be entirely transparent about its finances can “open the kimono” – in other words, hide absolutely nothing. On the other hand, “putting lipstick on a pig” by trying to portray a thoroughly bad situation as a good one is as expressive as it gets.

But it’s the lazy, unthinking kind that we clearly all hate. Taking the number one spot was “going forward” – mostly because it’s what we try to do the majority of the time and because not everything, as comedian David Mitchell puts it, “needs to sound like a masterplan”. “Like” as a filler was also on the list, as was “so” at the start of a sentence, and any talk about “reaching out”.

Do any of these strike a chord with you? At the end of the day, it’s a personal choice, and we must occasionally all agree to disagree, don’t you think? It turns out that an idle tweet at lunchtime can yield some very interesting results. Next time, perhaps I should wait a beat before reaching for social media. Then again, it’s always good to touch base. And of course, as ever, it is what it is.

Susie Dent

Written by Susie Dent