We all misspeak or misuse words sometimes. Maybe we’ve latched onto phrases our parents handed down incorrectly. Or perhaps we picked them up from a movie, television, or social media with no clue they were being used inappropriately—or even worse, offensively.
It’s OK; most of us unknowingly use problematic words and phrases from time to time without thinking about their origins or how they could hurt some groups of people. What’s not OK is to keep doing it once you know it’s wrong.
There are plenty of words out there to choose from in the, ahem, dictionary. But, to help narrow it down, we rounded up some commonly misused words and phrases that have the potential to offend.
We’re not going to leave you verbally high and dry either. We’re providing some better alternatives for each. Take a look and see how many you may be misusing.
Beyond mere animals, today people claim their spirit animal to be everything from avocado toast to the movie Deadpool. They mean to imply that they relate with something or deeply love something. But using the term spirit animal in such a way is not only overdone, it’s also offensive.
The problem is that spirit animals are an important part of the belief system of some cultures and refer to a spirit that “helps guide or protect a person on a journey and whose characteristics that person shares or embodies.” Referring to Baby Yoda as your spirit animal is actually cultural appropriation, so next time you go to type this on social media, try one of these fun synonyms instead.
- Baby Yoda is my kindred spirit.
- Pistachio ice cream is my raison d’être.
- I’ve flipped over that movie; it is my new BFF.
- That piano-playing cat is my daemon.
If you don’t hail from Tibetan stock and live in the Nepalese Himalayas serving as a porter on mountain-climbing expeditions (yes, we know, that was very specific), you’re not a Sherpa. Nope, not even if you lead your friends to the best burrito spot at 2 a.m. or help your roommate pass their chemistry test.
Sherpa is actually an ethnic group and attributing the title to others is disrespectful.
- She is the strong commander our study group needs.
- I will be your guide to the best dive restaurants.
- I need a coach to help improve my dating game.
- She was the mastermind of all of our weekend activities.
Guru is used in a similar way as Sherpa to refer to someone who’s good at something or an expert in a subject matter.
The word guru, however, comes from Buddhist and Hindu religions and refers to a spiritual guide or leader who is held in high esteem. Throwing the term around casually—as in referring to yourself as a marketing/love/business guru—is disrespectful because it diminishes the importance of the title and its origins.
- They are a doyen in the marketing world.
- I have learned so much from my uncle, who is a virtuoso in the kitchen.
- I am an authority when it comes to raising puppies right.
- The mechanic is truly skilled; he is a maestro.
Yep, cultural appropriation is the issue again with the word ninja. The term’s origins refer to “a member of a feudal Japanese society of mercenary agents, highly trained in martial arts and stealth (ninjutsu), who were hired for covert purposes ranging from espionage to sabotage and assassination.”
Yet few who throw the word around today pay any regard to the original culture and context of the word. Much like guru, people use the term to claim expertise in an area, such as legal ninja or writing ninja, and the concern is that the word’s origins aren’t being respected in such cases.
- They are a legal expert.
- You are a whiz with plants.
- That is one ace charcuterie-board maker.
- What a warrior you were on the field!
We blame Seinfeld’s infamous Soup Nazi for the proliferation of this term’s use. Technically it describes people who were members of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, which controlled Germany from 1933–1945 under Adolf Hitler.
Using the term casually, as in grammar Nazi or fun Nazi, makes light of the horrible atrocities they committed.
- My father-in-law is a cookie boss.
- I go all authoritarian when it comes to the right way to put up Christmas decorations.
- I am an absolutist when it comes to serial commas.
- He’s the top dog and hates when anyone disagrees with him.
Whether it’s that new Netflix series or several handfuls of M&Ms from your coworker’s candy bowl, you may be tempted to say you binged, but try to refrain (both from using the word and eating too much sugar).
We throw around terms like binge-watch and cleaning binge all the time when, in fact, the word binge originates from serious eating disorders, including Binge Eating Disorder and bulimia, and should be reserved for discussions about them. Choosing to watch every episode of The Crown in a weekend is a choice, whereas bingeing disorders are not a choice and their severity shouldn’t be diminished.
- I indulged a little too much at the party last night.
- I satiated my rom-com appetite this weekend.
- That was one delicious pasta-eating spree through Italy.
- I wallowed in chocolate instead of eating dinner. YOLO!
Used as a noun to refer to the top of your head, scalp is fine. It’s when it’s used as a verb that we get into dangerous territory.
Using it to say someone ripped you off or to infer that you got robbed is making light of what was a very gruesome act involving “a part of [the] integument [of the upper part of the head] with the accompanying hair, severed from the head of an enemy as a sign of victory, as by some North American Indians and others during the colonial and frontier periods in the US.”
- The American people have been fleeced by the vote.
- They robbed us of that game.
- That restaurant hustled us for that mediocre meal.
- She pulled a fast one on us.
You buy a used car only to find out it’s a lemon with problems galore. While your frustration is legitimate, saying you got gyped isn’t.
It comes from the word Gypsy, who are Romani people. There are already plenty of negative associations with the term gypsy, and using gypped to say you got ripped off only perpetuates the negative stereotypes.
You can blame F. Scott Fitzgerald for popularizing the term by using it in his book, The Great Gatsby (“We had over twelve hundred dollars when we started, but we got gyped out of it all in two days”). But you can only blame yourself if you continue to use it.
- That ride was a ripoff.
- We just got shortchanged.
- Well, that was a complete fraud.
- I can’t believe that store bamboozled me again.
If you find something or someone to be hysterical, meaning funny, that’s OK. If you’re calling someone’s actions hysterical because they’re being emotional, then you may want to reconsider.
Hysterical’s earliest meaning was “of, relating to, or characterized by hysteria,” and while we now think of hysteria as irrational panic, it was, for centuries, a medical diagnosis. Hysteria comes from the Greek hysterikós, which means “suffering in the womb.”
So, yeah, the ancient Greeks believed that when a woman was behaving irrationally—or in a way that they considered to be irrational—it was because her uterus was literally wandering around her body causing trouble (Kory Stamper, “What It Really Means To Call A Woman Hysterical“).
Plus, have you ever heard a man being called hysterical … we’re guessing not.
- That was an intense reaction.
- I felt impassioned after that scene.
- We were vehement in our position.
- He made his point with a piercing speech.
So, as we head into the new year and are ruminating over resolutions, consider resolving to clean up your language.
While plenty will claim people are being too sensitive in finding these words objectionable, we’ll take a moment to remind you that a synonym for sensitive is understanding. If your words have the potential to hurt others, why wouldn’t you try to find better words? There are plenty of them to choose from, after all, and we’re always here to help.