Searching for Just the Right Word

Original word

Photo courtesy of Gavin Allanwood on Unsplash

Do you repeat yourself? No, I’m not inquiring whether or not you tell stories repetitiously. (“Say, have I ever told you about the time I….”)

Instead, I’m asking this: Are you word lazy? Many of us are. We get in a rut, using and overusing the same small vocabulary of words.

In a coaching session last month, I pointed out that a client used the word “thing” seventeen times in a fifteen-minute talk.

She uttered phrases such as, “The number one thing we need to watch for is…” and “The important thing to do first is…” and “Which thing has the most impact?”

I’m fond of speech coach Patricia Fripp’s take on the overuse of the word thing. Fripp has been quoted as saying, “Specificity builds credibility.” When we refer to issues, problems, and solutions as “things” we’re being overly non-specific and so we come across as lacking credibility.

Personally, I overuse the word great. I use it so much it has lost its meaning:  A great meal, a great visit, a great time, a great movie, a great friend, a great idea, a great TED talk…..”How are you, Norma?”  I’m great, thanks for asking.

Great is beginning to grate on my nerves.

Thanks to the online site, using the section of synonyms, I’m now building my own list of words to substitute for great. Although it’s not listed as a possible synonym for great, I like the word spectacular.

Listening to yourself is a rewarding experience as I wrote about on March 6.   I understand that can be a daunting exercise. Maybe as you work up your courage to try that, start by paying extra attention to yourself while you’re speaking. See if you can hear/find your own word laziness. Then use the synonym search tool to replace the word.

Note: If you’re hearing too much swearing (as some of my students admit to!), you should cut that out anyhow. You know who you are.

Stuck on a nonsense word or phrase like a parrot? Examples are “Gotcha” and “Right, right,” as your go-to response to let someone know you’re following what they’re saying.

How many words are there? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there are “full entries for 171,476 words in current use and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries.”

Figures are all over the place for the vocabulary of the average American. Links to some articles are below. Do we know 20,000 words?  40,000? 70,000  or more words? But how many words we KNOW and how many words we USE are two different categories.

Let’s step away from our word laziness and use a wider variety of words to tell our stories.

That will be a great thing.


Article on how many words are there in the English language

Here is one test for how many words average American knows

Here is a test you can take
















9 thoughts on “Searching for Just the Right Word

    • Norma Thatcher says:

      Patti, maybe you should have a second cup of coffee in order to get my humor. I purposely ended the post with the two overused words GREAT and THING.

  1. Beverly Henderson says:

    When I use an uncommon/unusual word when telling my husband a story, he invariably says,”Can you spell that?”

  2. Marlene says:

    When I was squadron commander in the USAF we had a general briefing an inspection agency and he kept using the phrase First Class. All of us were cringing. When we took a break I told him I needed to talk to him privately for a minute. We went outside and I said essentially: Sir, you’ve said first class too many times. Its losing its impact. Quick, let’s brainstorm some other words. We did and in the second half of the brief he only used it once at the end of the brief. Something along the line of “as you can see we are a first class operation” and looked at me and laughed. A fun memory.

    • Norma Thatcher says:

      WOW! That was brave of you. I am amazed that he took it so well AND let you coach him. Thanks for sharing this story. May I use it in a class someday with attribution to you?

  3. Nancy Caldwell says:

    My husband Lways says “what does that mean?” He uses “really, reallyl a lot but only when he likes something.

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