How the word is overused


Left: Matt Slocum/AP; right: Wikimedia Commons

It's probably not possible to track gratuitous uses of the word "definitely" with any accuracy, but they're definitely daily occurrences. Commenting on facts and fictions, the trivial and the tragic, people are definitely committed to their opinions.

You could grow old gathering examples:

"Rayna and Juliette are definitely composite characters."

The Defense Department "is definitely taking [sexual assault] seriously."

The author of a new book about Anne Boleyn "definitely does relate to the doomed queen."

"Giffords bringing together two former colleagues on gun violence is definitely more heartwarming than the other behind-the-scenes story, in which Toomey refused to appear at a press conference with Chuck Schumer."

"What happened in Arkansas [enactment of an abortion ban] will definitely encourage others to take similar action."

"There was definitely a split between us and the White House over Mexico" [regarding a former DEA informant].

Former Patriot Wes Welker would "definitely like to thank New England for the six years" and is "definitely excited about the opportunity" to play for the Denver Broncos.

It's hard to know precisely when "definitely" devolved into a verbal tic, but easy to guess why. People with definite opinions sound confident, assertive, imbued with self-esteem and devoid of self-doubt. They sound, or want to sound, like winners. The emergence of "definitely" as our go-to modifier is a tribute to our old tradition of positive thinking and our new culture of reality TV: "I'm bringing it -- definitely. I'm definitely going to win this thing."

"Definitely" is not our only signifier of self-certainty. "Absolutely" is the new yes, especially popular among waiters. Might you see the dessert menu? "Absolutely!" Superlatives abound: "There are some phenomenal candidates in Massachusetts for [Kerry's] Senate seat," Ben Affleck gushed, squelching rumors that he might be among them. "I look forward to an amazing campaign."

I hope he's not been disappointed, and wonder how someone who finds a group of fairly ordinary candidates "amazing" would describe the grand canyon or a walk on the moon.

Like "amazing," awesome," and "incredible," "definitely" has been stripped of any particular meaning and impact by reflexive overuse. It doesn't even convey a general sense of conviction anymore: As Wes Welker said after signing with Denver, leaving Tom Brady "was definitely probably the hardest part." I definitely wish Welker luck and think that Brady and the Patriots may definitely probably miss him.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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