Blog Excerpts

A Popular History of Language Peeves

In a piece for the most recent Atlantic, language writer Jen Doll takes on the phenomenon of linguistic peeving and collects a list of "classics." Look for your favorites below, but first check out what she has to say about the concept of peeving in general.

Peeving (whose name itself might cause peevery), or complaining about the way words are used, seems to have been around as long as language itself.…As long as language is changing, people will peeve, and as long as people can communicate, language will change. History suggests that even the most vociferous peevery is unlikely to result in a word or usage being eradicated from a dictionary, but “contrary to predictions of decline going back centuries,” says [language expert and Harvard psychology professor Steven] Pinker, “we’re not grunting like Tarzan.”

Doll goes on to collect a list of peeves through time.

A Popular History of Peeves

Irregardless Merriam-Webster may admit that irregardless is a word, but the dictionary still instructs readers to “use regardless instead.”

Myriad Peevers insist that myriad should be used only as an adjective—“myriad reasons” rather than “a myriad of reasons”—but Merriam-Webster approves of both usages.

Awful Formerly used to convey actual awe, of the majestic-waterfall or wrath-of-God variety; now a synonym for bad.

Hopefully Peevers recoil from the use of hopefully to mean “it is hoped” rather than “in a hopeful manner”—“hopefully we make it in time” versus “she sighed hopefully”—despite the fact that Merriam-Webster describes this use as “entirely standard” for the adverb.

Could care less If you have no caring left in your being, then you technically could not care less.

Decimate Because the word’s Latin root means “tenth,” peevers insist that when you say “the Sox decimated the Tigers” you mean “the Sox reduced the Tigers by 10 percent.”

Momentarily Will the plane be landing for just a moment, or is it merely time to stow our tray tables?

Doll also discusses the literally-figuratively peeve, which received attention in 2013, when a Reddit post announced Google's inclusion of a secondary definition of literally: “Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling." (Check out our archives for "'Literally': A Tempest in a Teapot?," "Really! Truly! Literally!," and "A Peever's Perspective on 'Literally'.")

Any of these peeves look familiar? Want to add one your own peeve to the list? Leave a comment below!


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Friday January 24th, 11:38 AM
Comment by: William T. (Melbourne, FL)
Yeah, lingabuds, I'm Bill Turner and after bein' around for over 91 years I gotta comment: I wanna know how to hurry the extinction of a spate of words/phrases that have achieved the ad nauseam stage in hoi polloistic usage, such as:

WELL...when used to start the answer to a question.

COOL...not when used to indicate temperature but when some graybeard is trying to act cool (oops, Goddamit) See what I mean.

OBVIOUSLY...when followed by some muttonhead's pedagogically rendered statement that is, well...all to obvious to the point of not being cool. (OH, culpa, culpa, mamamea culpa. I'm one a dem. Tink I'll commit Harry Karry ((that's Brooklynese for...oh Hell, you linguisticians know what I'm tawkin' about))).

PS: Any objection to that use of three (3) parentheseeses?
Friday January 24th, 11:45 AM
Comment by: William T. (Melbourne, FL)
WOW! Who was that old, masked commenter who went wheezing off into the Melbourne sunset?
Friday January 24th, 11:55 AM
Comment by: Alan G. (NV)
Funny, Bill. One of my peeves is the word preventative. I contend that it's just preventive with a redundant syllable - get rid of it! Am I wrong?
Friday January 24th, 11:58 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
For my take on preventive vs. preventative, scroll down to the reader question at the end of this "On Language" column.
Friday January 24th, 1:19 PM
Comment by: mac
re: "could care less", there are those (legion) insisting it's "couldn't care less".
that's o k for those beyond the Hudson and north of the Bronx but i always understood there was more to that remark, unspoken but understood.
hence: "i could care less but don't know how".
attitude? yes but it is N Y, after all . . .
Friday January 24th, 1:51 PM
Comment by: Steve K.
OK, this one's more of an eggcorn than grammatical misuse, but it tops my list of pet peeves. I've heard people say "all of the sudden" instead of "all of a sudden" increasingly over the past 10 years, and I'm not sure why. It's rampant in the media and I hear it more and more in casual conversation. For some reason, this verbal misstep grates its fingernails across the chalkboard of my soul.
Friday January 24th, 7:26 PM
Comment by: William A.
"Pushing the envelope" sets my teeth on edge. That phrase makes nonsense at all, yet it flows off the tongue of so many in the Chattering Class. The correct term is "pushing the edge of the envelope"' born of test flights to the limits of an airplane 's or a pilot's endurance.
Saturday January 25th, 7:06 AM
Comment by: Eric B. (Pittsford, NY)
Thanks Bill. You're cool.
Sunday January 26th, 12:59 AM
Comment by: Richard T.
I have sworn off using the word "incredible", except in the very rare occasions when I really do want to describe something too bizarre, extraordinary or outlandish to be believed. It's common use now is simply for emphasis, conveying no meaningful information. This laziness impoverishes the language. My favorite misuse is when someone describes a movie's special effects as incredible. If they were incredible, a different special effects company should have been hired. I call on all lovers of English to notice if and when you fall into this brain-dead habit.
Sunday January 26th, 10:13 PM
Comment by: jyothi N.
I prefer regardless any day. Why on earth should one say IRREGARDLESS. It sounds pedantic and somehow wrong.

I enjoyed your article.Keep writing more such articles. Jyothi
Monday January 27th, 9:11 AM
Comment by: Kath
Does it make anyone else's skin crawl when a speaker or writer uses "should of" or "could of" instead of "should have" or "could have", or indulges in the folly of using "me" instead of "I" (or vice-versa)as in "Joan and me were invited." instead of "Joan and I were invited."?
No wonder many of us in the United States are averse to learning another language beyond English! We can't identify the need for an auxiliary verb instead of a preposition, or get the use of subjective and objective cases correct in our native tongue! We have to learn the mechanics of language as well as a new mind-set and vocabulary.
Friday January 31st, 5:52 PM
Comment by: Read H. (NY)
Wow!
Friday January 31st, 8:40 PM
Comment by: Richard E. (WA)
A recent president, known for his many malapropisms, also had the odd tendency to substitute the letter D for S in certain contractions, e.g. wadn't for wasn't, idn't for isn't, etc. Maybe it's a Texas locution (or dyslocution; I made that up, will it fly?)

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