A list comprised of words that inspire ire

Published 4:56 pm Friday, May 3, 2024

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A silly little memory from college that particularly stands out is a discussion we had in one of my writing classes. I can’t remember how we got on the subject initially, but the discussion devolved into a passionate argument over how to pronounce the word “detritus.”

For anyone not familiar with the word, detritus is “a product of disintegration, destruction, or wearing away.” Imagine bits of worn-down rocks and plant materials in the mud of a swamp, for example. Or metaphorically, the remnants left behind of an ancient civilization.

My classmates and our teacher could have saved ourselves some time by just looking up the word in the dictionary, which always includes a pronunciation guide. Merriam-Webster’s website, for example, notes that you have to stress the second syllable of detritus, just like you do with words such as “arthritis” and “bronchitis.”

Anyway, after that particular class, I will never forget the proper way to pronounce detritus, and it makes me giggle every time I stumble across the word in something I’m reading. Some of my classmates, however, might have a different association with the word now. Maybe it annoys them every time they see it instead!

It’s kind of funny how we can grow to be attached to certain words and learn to hate others. Ask any friend or family member if they have a favorite word or one they just can’t stand to hear. I bet you’ll get some pretty interesting answers. (For the record, my favorite word has been “defenestrate” for years now. Back when I first heard the word as a teenager, I thought it was really funny that there was a specific word that means “to throw a person or thing out of a window.” How oddly specific!)

Merriam-Webster has compiled a fascinating list of “words you love to hate.” I had no idea that some of these words inspire ire in a lot of people! It’s funny how annoying some of the quirks of the English language can be. Here are a few examples from the list:

“Like” – People have apparently been complaining about misuse of this word for generations. Back in the 1950s, grammar snobs got irritated by a cigarette slogan that went “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.” As journalist Walter Cronkite pointed out, it would have been better if it was “…as a cigarette should.”

Seems a bit nitpicky to me! Especially since we can all understand what the slogan meant.

In more recent years, people got annoyed by the younger generation using “like” as a placeholder in a sentence. For example, “people get, like, so frustrated over the silliest things sometimes.”

Perhaps it sounds strange to the older generation, but that’s just, like, your opinion, man!

“Irregardless” – This is a word that many claim is “not real” even though all words are real if you use them long enough. As the dictionary points out, people have been using this word for over 200 years and it has a meaning. (It’s the same meaning as the word “regardless.”)

One of my earliest columns for this newspaper was about “irregardless” and how mad it makes some people. While it might not be considered “proper” English and Microsoft Word keeps telling me I’m spelling “regardless” wrong, it’s still perfectly acceptable slang. The word has been around for a long time, and it’s not going away any time soon.

“Comprise” – This list is comprised of many words that seem to annoyed people when used incorrectly. This word is one of them, apparently.

In earlier days, the word would be used like this: “The cake comprises egg, sugar, and flour.”

But over the years, people began saying “comprised of” instead, and so often enough that it sounds weird to me now to use the original version. Grammatically, it’s technically not quite right, but as with “irregardless,” people are going to understand what you mean anyway.

“Firstly” – I’ve never actually heard anyone complain about this word before, so I was surprised to find it on the Merriam-Webster list! (Especially, because I use “firstly” quite frequently.)

Back in the day, “firstly” was considered an improper use of the word “first.” After all, they’re not interchangeable. You can’t say “I firstly noticed that yesterday,” for example. But it’s actually fine to use in other cases, like “firstly, what’s going on here? And secondly, should I be worried?”

One complaint about “firstly” is that it’s unnecessary when you can just use “first” instead. (Fair point, but we truly can never have too many words to choose from! Do these people not like having synonyms?) Another is that it’s too long compared to “first.” (A silly complaint considering that it’s only two letters difference!)

“Unique” – To use a modifier or to not use a modifier? That is the question. And the answer is “depending on which definition you’re using,” much to some people’s dismay.

When people say “unique” to mean “the only thing” or “having no equal,” then it makes sense not to use phrases like “very unique” or “most unique” because that implies there are degrees of uniqueness. And then it’s not the only unique thing out there.

But unique has another definition which simply means “unusual,” (as in, “her fashion sense was very… unique”). In that case, feel free to use whatever modifiers you’d like.

Hm… “unique” having more than one definition doesn’t make it a very unique word at all.

There are plenty of other examples included on Merriam-Webster’s list of words people love to hate. Maybe there are a few surprises on there. Or maybe you’ll find your personal pet peeve.

Thankfully, “detritus” and its confusing pronunciation wasn’t on the list!

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com 252-332-7206.