Calling Out Six Adjectives Overused in 2019

Trendy Words that Showed Up Far Too Often During the Year          

12/3/19 – – As we approach the end of an eventful year in crisis communication, I thought it would be helpful and fun to review some of the interesting language that dominated public discourse throughout 2019.

There is a fascinating phenomenon that plays out every year: Wanting to express our thoughts in fresh, relevant ways, we repurpose words, giving them slightly different meanings to better capture current priorities and mores. Adopted by authorities, journalists and other thought leaders, these trendy words often become overused or misused. When that happens, audiences tune out.

Here are a half-dozen adjectives I hope will fall out of fashion in 2020. 

  1. Woke – – an adjective that describes someone hyper-alert to social injustice, especially racism, woke is most often used in a derogatory manner to question an individual’s sincerity and shut down meaningful dialogue.
  2. Robust – – traditionally referring to a human condition characterized by strength, health and vigor, robust is now used imprecisely to modify everything that’s not alive from programs and policies to schedules and security.
  3. Surreal – – referring to the irrational, dream-like qualities of surrealism (think Salvador Dali’s depiction of a melting clock), surreal is now used to describe a broad range of special, but not so dreamy experiences — winning an award, meeting someone famous, having an unexpected encounter. 
  4. Debunked – – journalists and politicians are throwing around debunked to cavalierly dismiss theories and explanations they want you to believe are false, but are most often still being assessed by others for their veracity.
  5. Existential – – this scary-sounding adjective is being used to elevate the consequences of a threat to suggest the end of human existence (think climate change), but existential more commonly refers to the elements of existentialism, the philosophical thought of Sartre, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard; individuals are free to make rational decisions in an irrational world. (My favorite Sartre quote: “If you are lonely when you are alone, you are in bad company.”)
  6. Transparent – – it is a very good thing for a company to be open and honest, but I think the word transparent promises too much — no organization is an open window, allowing everything about it to be seen clearly at all times from the outside. 

While it’s tempting and not always wrong to incorporate trendy words into our communication, taking a moment to consider more precise alternatives pays dividends. Your thoughts will have a much better chance of breaking through. And the results will be . . . surreal!

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