The Six Stages of Word Grief


I’ve posted before about the stages that a word goes through on the road from being considered incorrect to being considered above reproach.

You know, at first it’s totally wrong, then time goes by, etc. etc., and you really should read the other post.

Words like transpire (now meaning “happen,” if you’re trying to look smart); oxymoron (now meaning “contradiction in terms,” except in Lit class); penultimate (more and more meaning “ultimate”); bemused (more and more meaning “amused”); literally (more and more being used as some sort of intensifier, whether speaking metaphorically or literally), and everyone’s favorite, irregardless (more and more replacing “regardless”).

But what about the stages of the people hearing the words? That is, the sort of grief felt by people who care about language and its precision. I figure there are six stages.

The Six Stages of Word Grief

1. Confusion. “Did that guy say the weather is “smarmy”? What does that mean? Is he being poetic?”

2. Amusement. “It’s hilarious how some people say that the weather is smarmy, when they mean humid. What a bunch of bozos.”

3. Annoyance. “No, that’s not the right word. What is UP with people using that word?”

4. Exasperation. “Oh my God, if one more person tells me the weather is smarmy, I’m gonna explode.”

5. Acceptance when OTHER people do it. “I wouldn’t use “smarmy” that way, but I barely notice when other people do.”

6. Complete Acceptance or death. Whichever comes first, but my money is on death.

So, now I can place a word in two stages: The stage of the word’s acceptance in the world and my personal stage of grief that the word is becoming accepted.

It’s so nice to quantify these things.


A. Please don’t tell me how many stages there are really supposed to be.

B. My friend Tom did actually say that the weather was smarmy. My reaction was swift, just, and uncompromising.

C. I called them “phases,” not “stages,” in my earlier post. I’m switching it up to cash in on the “five stages” comic beat. Now you know how it works here at Save the Semicolon.

D. I will die before I use irregardless.

E. The traditional meanings of the words mentioned above:

Transpire: to leak out, or become known. “She told us about her ordeal, but it later transpired that she had made the whole thing up.”

Oxymoron: a literary technique in which incongruous terms are used together for effect. “Deafening silence” (As opposed to a contradiction in terms, which can be accidental and not interesting.)

Penultimate: The second-to-last. “Spanish words are usually pronounced with the emphasis on the penultimate syllable.”

Bemused: Confused. “She was bemused by his word choice and didn’t understand his meaning.”

Literally: If you don’t know this one, then go read another blog.

Irregardless: You know the meaning, but interestingly, although it’s been attacked for about a hundred years, it still keeps chugging along. Weird.


12 Responses to “The Six Stages of Word Grief”

  1. May 12, 2010 at 11:23 am #

    This is one of my favorite posts (not just because I am mentioned by name!)

    I think that Merriam-Webster will easily back me on this one:

    Etymology: smarm, to gush, slobber
    1. revealing or marked by a smug, ingratiating, or false earnestness
    2. of low sleazy taste or quality

    So…I was clearly being more etymological than poetical (for your entertainment) since the crushing humidity regularly feels like musky slobber in the middle of the summer around here. I might go as far as to suggest that the weather, personified, was the equivalent of a polyester-clad, used car salesman on the day in question and as such quite smarmy. It made me prespire (topical because the traditional meaning of Transpire is so similar…”to leak out” as noted above).

    You, Rob, I like a lot.

  2. May 12, 2010 at 9:08 pm #

    Tom: You win.

  3. May 14, 2010 at 9:07 am #

    I too will die before I use “irregardless”.

    I am literally bemused when my smarmy friends use it.

    Great post.

  4. May 26, 2010 at 1:04 am #

    Great post.

    I’m bemused by Tom’s use of “prespire.” But his explanation of how he used smarmy rings true. We have the same weather here in DC.

  5. April 27, 2011 at 11:24 am #

    Wonderful! Humor and camaraderie are the only comforts for us snoots (aka SNOOTS) in the face of mangled language.

    If you haven’t run into the word “snoot” yet, you can find a description of it here:

  6. April 28, 2011 at 9:08 pm #

    I hadn’t heard SNOOT before. Thanks!

    • April 28, 2011 at 9:25 pm #

      You’re welcome, Rob. For a fuller (and equally entertaining) discussion of this wonderful term, see Garner’s Modern American Usage, third edition, p. xxxv and p. 756.

  7. December 1, 2012 at 6:50 pm #

    Wonderful points, all! I would like to nominate “tump” as a word. My brother and I used it, as a handy combination of “dump” and “tip” (“he tumped the toy box over”). My mother insisted it was not a word, and she was technically right. But, I think it’s a useful and needed term.

    • December 1, 2012 at 10:50 pm #

      I accept this word.

  8. December 1, 2012 at 11:24 pm #


  9. December 19, 2015 at 4:52 pm #

    This fell none short of glorious; I reveled in each syllable. I nearly squirmed in delight after I read, “Literally: If you don’t know this one, then go read another blog.” No amount of praise could be considered excessive.

  10. October 3, 2018 at 6:38 pm #

    My verbal/written pet peeve: orientate. Hearing that come from someone’s mouth means that my affection for them decreases by 10% and I wonder why I ever thought they were smart.

    Written pet peeve (usually in a facebook post or text): using “an” to mean “and”. Is it really so much harder to type the “d”? I basically think you are an idiot if you do that and I will never respect you.

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