7 Words To Stop Using In 2021 (And What To Say Instead)

The way people use language is constantly changing. Words that were once cool become obsolete, meanings shift, and sometimes we realize that words once thought of as harmless are actually inappropriate or even offensive. Most of us have used problematic words at one time or another. Maybe we repeated something we heard on our favorite show, or we latched on to the newest slang without considering its origins or which groups might be harmed by its usage.

Last year, we welcomed 2020 with a discussion of eight harmful or offensive words that more and more people were dropping from their vocabularies. Now, after another trip around the sun, we’re back with a few more contenders to add to the list. Modifying your vocabulary always feels a little awkward at first. Luckily, there are plenty of words to choose from, and we happen to be experts in figuring out which ones to use. Here are seven words that people are rethinking in 2021, and what you can say instead.

Dumb

See definition

The word dumb is very old and very common. You've likely heard it millions of times as a way of talking about a joke or movie someone didn't like, or describing something that was seen as boring, uninteresting, or unintelligent. Perhaps you've even used it this way yourself. Dumb was first recorded before the year 1000. It’s related to the Old Norse dumbr, Gothic dumbs, Old Saxon dumb, Old High German tump, and German dumm, and it originally meant “lacking the power of speech” or “temporarily unable to speak.”

Historically, people who could not hear or speak were sometimes labeled deaf and dumb or deaf-mute. This usage is no longer common, but the history and association remains. As a result, the way we use dumb today is often problematic and potentially insulting. It stigmatizes differently abled people and creates an association between physical disabilities and intelligence or worthiness. There are plenty of better and more appropriate words we could say instead.

What to say instead:

  • That customer is acting foolish.
  • I made a careless mistake.
  • Well, that's a silly thing to do.
  • The argument made the politician sound so ignorant.

Psycho

See definition

When you hear the word psycho, you might think of the movie or of that one former classmate on Facebook who's constantly sharing wild conspiracy theories. In modern usage, people tend to use psycho casually to describe things that are outlandish, exceptionally strange, or over the top. Unfortunately, mental health advocates worry that casual use of the word can reinforce negative stereotypes of mental illness.

Psycho is an abbreviated form of the terms psychological or psychotic that was first recorded in English in the 1930s. When used as a noun, psycho refers to “a crazy or mentally unstable person.” When used as an adjective, it describes a subject that is considered to be “psychopathic or psychotic.” It's important to be specific with language, and to avoid further stigmatizing mental health issues. With that in mind, it may be time to drop psycho and find a better way to describe what we're talking about.

What to say instead:

  • She's a bit of an oddball.
  • His quirky behavior gets a lot of attention.
  • My capricious coworker keeps yelling about her lost stapler.
  • My brother freaked out when I borrowed his jacket. He's so fickle.

Looking for more? We have more alternatives for psycho here.

Powwow

See definition

In office culture, you might hear someone refer to a team meeting or brainstorm as a powwow. In this informal usage, powwow means "any conference or meeting." Unfortunately, this usage may also be an example of cultural appropriation.

Powwow more commonly refers to large gatherings organized by Native American nations for socializing, dancing, singing, and celebrating their culture. These ceremonies are often accompanied by spiritual, religious, and ritual practices, along with dancing. The word itself comes from Algonquian, related to the Natick word pauwau, or "one who practices magic."

Calling the weekly meeting a powwow may seem like a fun play on words, but it's actually stripping the meaning away from an important part of certain Native American cultures.

What to say instead:

Lame

See definition

Lame comes from an Old English word meaning "crippled, weak," which was first recorded in the 700s. But, by the 1300s, usage of the word lame began to change drastically. The meaning of lame extended to refer to anything considered "defective," and by the late 1800s, lame was being used to make fun of people or things that were considered "uncool." This is the way the word is most commonly used today, but that usage has a harmful impact on certain groups of people.

In 2021, many people recognize lame as hurtful and ableist. Ableism is a form of discrimination against disabled people, and it includes language that marginalizes and stigmatizes the disabled community. Using lame to describe things that are undesirable or unacceptable can create an association with physical disabilities being seen as less desirable or acceptable as well, and there's no excuse for doing that.

What to say instead:

  • That is so banal.
  • I spent the entire day doing humdrum chores.
  • The theme for the school dance is so corny.
  • The movie's plot was hackneyed and boring.

Crazy

Crazy is one of the most common words in American English. There are songs about love driving people crazy. People casually say 2020 was the "craziest" year ever. But our overuse of crazy to describe anything and everything that we find odd, fascinating, exciting, great, or terrible has some mental health advocates on edge.

In the 1500s, the word crazy meant "to be sickly and infirm." Fast forward a century, and the word had already evolved to mean "mentally deranged, insane, or demented." Crazy can be a dismissive and dehumanizing term that reinforces damaging stereotypes about mental illness. Its popularity means it may be difficult to get rid of, but there are plenty of other words to use if you're interested in making this positive change to your vocabulary to benefit the mental health community.

What to say instead:

Enough with the "crazy" talk! Find even more alternatives here.

Tribe

See definition

In the early 2010s, everyone had a squad. That was the word we used to describe a tight group of friends or likeminded people. But there's another word that's gaining traction as a way to describe people who feel like they really connect: tribe. "Find your tribe" is a common way to encourage people to find the people they click with, but this usage overlooks the complex history of the word.

A tribe is an "aggregate of people united by ties of descent from a common ancestor, a community of customs and traditions, adherence to the same leaders." Usage of tribe dates back to the 1200s, and derives from the Latin tribus, which originally related to the divisions of voting groups in ancient Rome. Tribe has been used throughout history by colonizers to describe Indigenous groups throughout the African and American continents, and many consider this usage to be offensive because it promotes stereotypes about Native cultures.

Casual use of tribe glosses over these important issues and popularizes a word that has harmful connotations for many groups. We were able to move on from squad. Surely we can figure out a way to move on from this word, too.

What to say instead:

OCD

See definition

It's common to hear people talk about their "OCD tendencies" or how they're "so OCD." Typically, people use this term to show they're being obsessive about a particular interest or hobby. They might say they're OCD because they organize their socks by color or they're really particular about where certain items are in their home. The problem? That usage trivializes a genuine mental illness.

OCD stands for obsessive-compulsive disorder.  It's a recognized mental disorder than can have a serious impact on the lives of those who have it. The National Institutes of Health defines obsessive-compulsive disorder as a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that they feel the urge to repeat over and over.

Sometimes those with OCD may have compulsions related to cleanliness or hygiene, but using OCD as a term to describe quirky habits that aren't actually related to a mental health issue is belittling and dismissive. There's a better way!

What to say instead:

Did you find this article interesting? There are better words for that, too. Check them out!