How to concisely and accurately describe the effect many words (usually adjectives/adverbs) are suffering from, where:

  • they have a clear primary meaning but end up being used merely for emphasis, or to describe something similar but much less significant

  • were you to use them with the primary meaning in mind, you'd need to clarify which it is to be understood, often for the message to even be noticed

  • they are the most accurate words for what you have in mind, the lack of unambiguous drop-in replacements setting them apart from the many other words whose meaning drift does not have the same frustrating impact


"Stop, you're literally killing me" (You are causing me lethal damage; not making me rotfl)

"Uncanny semblance" (saliently disturbing similarity, as in uncanny valley; not just remarkable, amazing, significant, interesting, curious likeness)

[edit] The focus is on the effect that has made the words difficult to use in their primary meaning.

  • 3
    I would just say that they are trite, or tired, or cliché.
    – Warren P
    Jul 26, 2016 at 11:06
  • Figurative means something completely different. It means NOT LITERAL.
    – Warren P
    Jul 26, 2016 at 11:08
  • 4
    This sounds like semantic bleaching or perhaps some other kind of grammaticalization (obligorification?).
    – Dan Bron
    Jul 26, 2016 at 11:11
  • 3
    "literally" is a special case, where people say "literally" when they actually mean the opposite, ie "figuratively". They should literally be slapped. Jul 26, 2016 at 11:12
  • 2
    Figurative ‘literally’ in the OED: Hold the front pages, literally. Or not. There has been much excitement this week over the discovery that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has recorded a sense of the word literally that seems to cause particular irritation. I am speaking of its use in a sentence like “I literally died laughing and had to run out of the room before I disrupted the meeting”. blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/08/literally
    – user66974
    Jul 26, 2016 at 11:28

1 Answer 1


It appears that the question has no answer, but the closest term to what is described is semantic bleaching (a good explanation here).

Credit goes to Dan Bron, upvote his comment if you agree.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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