Suppose one person does not like one word or expression. He would have to use it though, so then he chooses a substitute. The majority of the people however use that word.

Now, since one meaning of a word is the number of utterances in the society, that person consciously and intentionally changes the impact of the word in society. He chooses to do so, even if the impact is very small and perhaps limited to his lifetime.

It is a bit similar to an election where one votes for a candidate who by far will not win. Are there examples of people who do that? Is there a norm that one has or has not the right to choose the word of his like?

  • 7
    That's right. Everybody changes the language they speak a little bit every time they speak it. When you consider that a common word in a language may be used by every speaker of that language several thousand times a day, and multiply that by millions of speakers and hundreds of years, you see a little of what Julian Jaynes meant when he said "Because in our brief lives, we catch so little of the vastness of history, we tend too much to think of language as being solid as a dictionary, with granite-like permanence, rather than as the rampant restless sea of metaphor that it is".
    – jlawler
    Mar 3, 2013 at 1:00
  • 1
    A trivial example would be Steve Irwin's common use of the exclamation "Crikey!" even though it is considered old fashioned in modern Australian English. Similarly, despite being a native Canadian English speaker, I tend to use a lot of Britishisms and often swear in Dutch (which I can't actually speak. I just learned the swear words from listening to my grandparents as a child). Even people who refuse to use swear words may fit your criteria.
    – acattle
    Mar 3, 2013 at 2:22
  • 1
    A more extreme (but still trivial) example of the underlying principle might be Gadsby: A Story of Over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter "E". But if it weren't for the title (and Introduction) I suspect many readers might not even notice (at all, or at least, for some time). Mar 4, 2013 at 23:12
  • I do not use the word 'underprivileged' for several reasons.
    – Ornello
    Dec 20, 2014 at 2:48
  • There are words I refuse to use. There are grammatical forms I keep correcting though I am aware the language is just changing no matter what I do. And there are things I refuse to do though everyone else seems to be doing it on SE.
    – babou
    Dec 20, 2014 at 18:53

4 Answers 4


Two examples (besides swearing):

  • Basically every political-correctness movement starts like this. You have a neutral description, e.g., disabled. Then a minority of people starts to dislike this term for some reason (e.g., since it is also used as an insult) and replaces it by some word they consider to be better, e.g., differently abled. This minority has an impact on society, not only popularizing the new term but also moving the public reception of the old term from a neutral to a more negative one. Finally the old term is generally considered to be disrespective and insulting and the new one is considered neutral and preferable. (And then people start all over again.)

  • In almost every language you will find speakers who oppose loanwords and use neologisms (or existing words) instead. For example, though the vast majority of Germans uses Internet for the internet, there is a small radical minority, which (unsuccessfully) propagates the use of Weltnetz (world network) or similar terms instead. There are also successful examples of replacing a loanword, e.g., some of Phillip von Zesen’s creations.

  • Disabled has a longer history you could trace back. Crippled -> handicapped -> disabled -> ... I think you can trace the changes of the acceptable terminology for "African American" in a similar way. Mar 3, 2013 at 23:37
  • 1
    A good English language example of the latter is IT types trying to get regular people to distinguish between "hacker" (good) and "cracker" (bad). Despite them trying for at least a decade most people still use only "hacker". Mar 3, 2013 at 23:39
  • What about terms that are avoided because people want to avoid being labelled according to a socio-political group that they don't want to be associated with. Perhaps Croatians in Croatia using words that are deemed to be Croatian and not Serbian? Mar 4, 2013 at 16:27

Yes, there are. As Acattle points out in his/her comment above, some people carefully refrain from swearing, even though the majority of Americans have become comfortable with a little profanity among adults. Common epithets are another class of words that most people use but that some people won't use. There are gentle people who won't use the term "slut" to designate a person known to be promiscuous. Conversely, certain people refuse to use euphemisms in the belief that those who do use them are inauthentic or too timid to speak forthrightly.

However, there are at least two obvious norms that limit to one's ability to refuse to use certain words that most people use. One is that most people expect a speaker to use a variety of language that the listener finds to be grammatically acceptable. An almost certainly hypothetical native English speaker who refused to use "the" might find himself or herself labeled as too eccentric to be worth talking to. The second norm is more important: one must speak in a way that allows one to be understood if communication is one's goal. If our almost certainly hypothetical native English speaker refused to use either the word "person" or any of its synonyms, he or she would have a tough time talking about everyone's favorite subject.


It's common for someone to insist on particular terminology that he considers clearer, especially when he has a point to prove. In fact, it's so common, it's become a storytelling trope. I'll give one set of examples from my native language (English).

The Free Software Foundation publishes a list of numerous English words that it encourages people not to use because it considers them loaded. For example, people say "photoshopped" to mean that a photo is doctored, but FSF encourages use of generic terms (such as "manipulated") so as not to advertise a particular proprietary software product. For the same reason, it discourages "PowerPoint" and "MP3 player". Other examples include use of "piracy" and "theft" to mean infringement, use of "consumer" to mean an individual, describing copyright as "protection", describing a uniform-royalty license offer as "reasonable and non-discriminatory", describing those Linux operating systems that use GNU C Library and GNU Core Utilities as anything other than "GNU/Linux", etc.

  • "Piracy", with that meaning, is a very old word that predates the existence of copyright. I do not know whether that is the case, but it could well have been used because the word "theft" is inappropriate, It is also semantically correct that copyright is not a protection, it is a right... unless, from the point of view of the work, you are thinking of protective custody, which still is custody. Actually, many such word disputes do matter, and choice of word is an insidious way to instll ideology, from both sides.
    – babou
    Dec 20, 2014 at 19:08

In English many rules have been advocated by language purists. They don't like a certain construction, so they invent a rule prohibiting it. Examples: Thou shalt not use "they" in the singular. Thou shalt not end a sentence in a preposition. This is despite the fact that there are numerous examples of well respected authors doing this for hundreds of years, e.g. Shakespeare.

My parents used to avoid the use of "for free", stating that "'free' means 'for nothing', so 'for free' means 'for for nothing'", which they considered made it ungrammatical. I don't know if they still do this. I still prefer to use "free" instead of "for free" although there may be times when I use "for free".

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.