Every year since 1976, Michigan’s Lake Superior State University has released a thoughtful and humorous “List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness”. Here is the 2021 (and forty-sixth annual) edition, for your reading enjoyment on this New Year’s Day:
Enough already with COVID-19!
People across the U.S. and around the world let Lake Superior State University know that they’re tired not only of the coronavirus pandemic but also of hearing, reading, and talking about it—especially when the communication is bad or excessive.
COVID-19 terminology monopolized submissions for LSSU’s annual Banished Words List this year.
Out of 1,450-plus nominations, upwards of 250 of the words and terms suggested for banishment for overuse, misuse, or uselessness relate to the coronavirus. In fact, seven of the 10 words and terms that LSSU is banishing for 2021 are about it. Ranked No. 1 to get rid of is what started of all this: “COVID-19” itself.
“It should surprise no one that this year’s list was dominated by words and terms related to COVID-19,” said Banished Words List committee members Associate Professor of English Mary McMyne, Assistant Professor of English Julie Barbour, and Associate Professor of English Dr. Chad Barbour. “LSSU’s Banished Words List has reflected signs of the times since debuting in the mid-1970s, and the zeitgeist this year is: We’re all in this together by banishing expressions like ‘We’re all in this together.’ To be sure, COVID-19 is unprecedented in wreaking havoc and destroying lives. But so is the overreliance on ‘unprecedented’ to frame things, so it has to go, too.”
LSSU has compiled an annual Banished Words List since 1976 to uphold, protect, and support excellence in language by encouraging avoidance of words and terms that are overworked, redundant, oxymoronic, clichéd, illogical, nonsensical — and otherwise ineffective, baffling, or irritating. Over the decades, LSSU has received tens of thousands of nominations for the list, which now totals more than 1,000 entries.
This year, nominations came from most major U.S. cities and many U.S. states, as well as from Australia, the Czech Republic, England, and Canada. Here are the list of the banished words and terms for 2021 and the reasons for their banishment:
#1: COVID-19 (COVID, CORONAVIRUS, RONA) — A large number of nominators are clearly resentful of the virus and how it has overtaken our vocabulary. No matter how necessary or socially and medically useful these words are, the committee cannot help but wish we could banish them along with the virus itself. Coincidentally, this list arrives as does a vaccine — the committee hopes this proves a type of double whammy.
#2: SOCIAL DISTANCING — This phrase is useful, as wearing a mask and keeping your distance have a massive effect on preventing the spread of infection. But we’d be lying if we said we weren’t ready for this phrase to become “useless.” With north of fifty nominations, many others clearly feel the same, and the tone of their reasoning ranged from impatient to heartfelt.
#3: WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER — This phrase was likely intended as a way to keep everyone feeling safe and calm at the start of the pandemic. However, as the virus made its way across the globe and nation, it became clear that we are all dealing with COVID-19 in different ways and that we confront some vastly different challenges in coping with it. As with many words that show up on the list, its usefulness has faded.
#4: IN AN ABUNDANCE OF CAUTION (VARIOUS PHRASINGS) — Yes, humanity needs to follow safeguards during COVID-19. The statistics are sobering: more than 342,000 deaths and more than 19 million confirmed cases in the U.S. and more than 1.8 million deaths and more than 82 million confirmed cases worldwide. But the phrasing about how to take preventative steps is vague. What is the standard measurement for caution, metric or U.S. standard?
#5: IN THESE UNCERTAIN TIMES (VARIOUS PHRASINGS) — The committee agrees that COVID-19 has upended everyday life and wishes this weren’t so. But putting things into imprecise context doesn’t help matters. The blur dilutes reality and, to some, sounds like the beginning of a movie trailer. Keep as wide a berth of trite parlance as those who don’t wear masks in public. What exactly does it mean for times to be uncertain? Look at a clock!
#6: PIVOT — Reporters, commentators, talking heads, and others from the media reference how everyone must adapt to the coronavirus through contactless delivery, virtual learning, curbside pickup, video conferencing, remote working, and other urgent readjustments. That’s all true and vital. But basketball players pivot; let’s keep it that way.
#7: UNPRECEDENTED [RE-BANISHMENT] — It’s unheard of that a word would be repeated on the Banished Words List. Actually, it’s not. In the early years, words wound up repeated, although we try to avoid repetition nowadays. Despite the fact that “unprecedented” was banished in 2002, given that it was nominated many times this year for misuse in describing events that do have precedent, inclusion again seems warranted.
2021 Banished Words and Terms Not About COVID-19:
#8: KAREN — What began as an anti-racist critique of the behavior of white women in response to Black and Brown people has become a misogynist umbrella term for critiquing the perceived overemotional behavior of women. As one nominator said about reasons for its banishment, “I would tell you why, but I’d sound like a Karen.” Another critic observed, “Offensive to all normal people named Karen.”
#9: SUS — It’s a shortened version for “suspicious” in the video game Among Us. No committee members play, but our children who do explained that this multiplayer online social game is designed around identifying “sus” imposters so they can be “thrown into the lava.” Complainers a) ask: How much effort does it take to say the entire word; and b) request: If that can’t happen, confine the syllable to the gaming world.
#10: I KNOW, RIGHT? — An amusing phrase flooding social media, “I know, right?” is a relatively new construction to convey empathy with those who have expressed agreement. But as one wordsmith put it, if you know, why do you need to ask if it’s correct or seek further approval? Another grammarian suggested that the desire for confirmation connotes insecurity. In other words, it’s reiterating something already seconded.
“Real-world concerns preoccupied word watchdogs this year, first and foremost COVID-19, and that makes sense,” said LSSU President Dr. Rodney S. Hanley. “In a small way, maybe this list will help ‘flatten the curve,’ which also was under consideration for banishment. We trust that your ‘new normal’—another contender among nominations—for next year won’t have to include that anymore. ”
Lists for previous years are available on Lake Superior’s site.
We’re very glad to see pivot and social distancing on the list. We don’t say social distancing at NPI, as we believe in physical distancing, not social distancing.
We disagree that COVID-19 and coronavirus should be banished. We need a way to refer to the disease, not just the virus that causes it (SARS CoV‑2) and the other names that have been proposed for the disease are extremely problematic or outright racist. It is for this very reason that LSSU’s own 2021 list goes on to repeat “COVID-19” several times after its banishment entry.
COVID-19 is not a misused or useless word, and not overused either given the pandemic. Therefore, it and “coronavirus” are not worthy of banishment.
(We can get behind banishing “Rona”, though!)
It’s certainly okay to be unhappy that those words have entered the common vernacular. The pandemic sucks, and we’d all like it to be over. But we’re not going to get out of it by wishing the disease away. We get rid of COVID-19 by confronting it. By wearing masks. By practicing physical distancing. And by getting vaccinated when the vaccine becomes available to each of us.
We’d add to this year’s list by adding several more obnoxious phrases that we’d like to see banished for overuse, misuse and general uselessness:
CANCEL CULTURE — This phrase has been embraced by right wing pundits and Republican candidates or elected officials who resent being held accountable for saying offensive or racist things, but curiously have no problem calling out behavior or speech that they disagree with that comes from their political opponents on the left. The term refers to the idea of “withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive,” according to Dictionary.com. However, the point of advertiser boycotts and similar tactics by progressive activists is not to get rid of freedom of speech, but rather to impose consequences for people who insist on uttering hate speech. The right wing’s notion of “cancel culture” is thus a misnomer.
SELF-MADE BILLIONAIRE — NPI staff heard this phrase used by CNN’s Brooke Baldwin back in 2020 when she was introducing a guest. But there is simply no such thing as a “self-made billionaire”; it’s a total fiction. As Elizabeth Warren and others have pointed out, nobody makes it on their own in America. Every person who succeeds in business makes use of the infrastructure the taxpayers paid for to accumulate their wealth, whether that’s the Internet or the interstate highway system or public airports and seaports.
ALL OPTIONS ARE ON THE TABLE — Frequently uttered by governors or mayors in response to questions like “What are you going to do about the rapid spread of COVID-19?” or “What are you going to do in response to the protests over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many more like them?” We would rather hear elected officials admit to being unsure what they’re going to do, or need to think about the proper path forward, rather than evasively claim that “all options are on the table” when in fact that’s not the case.
HUMANING — This atrocity was created by corporate marketers on the payroll of Mondelez International. “It set off a social-media backlash when it entered the lexicon this month, shortly after Mondelez declared that the word captured its approach to marketing snack foods around the world,” the New York Times’ Tiffany Hsu and Sapna Maheshwari reported last month. And rightly so: we simply don’t need this phony word in our vocabulary. We’re subjected to enough corporate mumbo jumbo as it is, from “synergy” to “benchmarking” to “paradigm shift” to “lead indicators”. The aforementioned New York Times article also lists many other invented words worthy of banishment.
I DON’T KNOW WHO NEEDS TO HEAR THIS, BUT — This meme annoyingly became a very popular way to begin a tweet in 2020, as in: “I don’t know who needs to hear this but keep doing you… don’t let the opinions of those who can’t or don’t affect you and your drive or journey. Keep pushing & stay focused. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. You get one life… make it count!” We don’t know who needs to hear this, but it’s entirely unnecessary to begin a tweet with this tired, boilerplate filler. Reclaim characters for what you really want to say by dropping this preposition.
REAL PEOPLE PAID FOR REAL OPINIONS / REAL PEOPLE, NOT PAID ACTORS — These ridiculous phrases have been trotted out by advertising agencies on behalf of big corporations like Microsoft in an attempt to make their product marketing more credible. Regardless of whether an ad uses professional actors or not, it’s still marketing, and the people in the ad are going to be saying favorable things about the product or service. By the way, to anyone on Madison Avenue who might be reading this post, paid actors are just as “real” as people who don’t work in the performance arts for a living. What ultimately makes a product endorsement credible is whether it is sincerely meant and felt by the person giving it.
Previously banished by NPI:
- We Shouldn’t Be Picking Winners and Losers
- News Dump
- Style Points
- Cupcake [in a gridiron context]
- Viewer Discretion is Advised
- The Stakes Are Too High
- Special Snowflake
- You Do You
- We Should Live Within Our Means
- She Shed
- Please Listen Carefully As Our Menu Has Changed
- Alternative Facts
- Thoughts and Prayers
- Zero Sum Game
- Hive Mind
- Not/Shouldn’t Be A Partisan Issue
- Make America Great Again/MAGA
- That Being Said
- ____ Porn
- Soft Target
- Netflix and Chill
- Explosive Play
- Chip In
- Active, Fluid Situation
- (If You) Work Hard And Play By The Rules
- Internet of Things
- Pick Six
- Boots On The Ground
- Send A Message
- Amazeballs/Balls to the Wall
- FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)
- Debt Ceiling
- -GEDDON contruct (e.g. Snowmageddon)
- Mommy Porn
- Some Would Say/Some Say
- Job Creator
- Two-Thirds Majority
- Let Me Be Perfectly Clear
- Offer Only Available For A Limited Time
- Your Call is Important To Us (an almost identical phrase was banished by Lake Superior State University in 1996)
- Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle
Are there words you like to see banished that aren’t on this year’s list – or LSSU’s all time list? If so, let us know in the comments. And Happy New Year!