Certain words or phrases become really popular. These words are picked up by many people, are overused, and sometimes misused to such an extent that the whole meaning of the word changes, or is even lost. I would describe these words as fads, because they become popular, but then (usually) disappear again.

Two examples:

  • Like: This morning I was, like totally, late for work.
  • Literally: If I do not get my phone back, I will literally die of boredom.

What is that phenomenon called? Is there a definition of what I just described?

Edit: After reading all the comments and responses I realized that my question was confusing. I was looking for a word that describes the phenomenon of (initially odd usages of) words being picked up and used by other people.

I gave the examples and stated what happens to these words to clarify what I meant.

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    If you're looking for a word to describe the overuse itself, try trite. If you're looking to describe why this happens to certain words but not others, I'm not sure how to label that catchiness. – J.R. Sep 27 '12 at 12:06
  • @J.R.: ...um...submit 'trite' and 'catchy' as an answer? – Mitch Sep 27 '12 at 12:27
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    Literally has been used this way for some 250 years, and the usage shows no signs of dying out. – Barrie England Sep 27 '12 at 12:43
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    You have defined cliché, as the current top answer points out. But your examples are not clichés - they are, respectively, two filler words and an intensifier. They both happen to be frowned upon by certain language peevers, but that's not a function of overuse, faddishness, or "loss" of meaning. No one is going around wondering what the sentence "He was totally literal at all times, like a robot" means because "totally," "literal," and "like" also happen to be used in ways that irritate pedants. – Evan Harper Sep 27 '12 at 14:41
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    I'm closing this because, as should be clear from the comments and the answers so far, this question is rather poorly defined. For what it's worth, we have half a dozen questions specifically dedicated to the Valley-Girl like, and we have a question dedicated to literally. Check them out and you will see for yourself that a) they are two completely different beasts and b) "overused" is in the eye of the beholder. No wonder the answers here are all over the map. – RegDwigнt Sep 27 '12 at 18:59

What you describe is actually the definition of cliché.

From the Wikipedia article:

A cliché or cliche* (UK /ˈkliːʃeɪ/ or US /klɪˈʃeɪ/) is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel. ... Most phrases now considered clichéd were originally regarded as striking, but lost their force through overuse.

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    I would like totally not consider such use of the word like to be clichéd :) Is it? – coleopterist Sep 27 '12 at 14:21
  • I think so. What traditional definition of "like" would you say describes how the word is used by younger people today? Now there is the added definition of: "Used in speech as a meaningless filler or to signify the speaker's uncertainty about an expression just used." – JLG Sep 27 '12 at 14:28
  • According to the source of that definition, it is being used as an adverb. It's a filler, a hedge, or a dialectal affectation. While fad could collectively represent both words and such affectations due to their possible ephemerality, IMO, the question, by virtue of the two examples provided, is talking about two different things rather than one. Words can be clichéd, as can phrases, but I don't think verbal tics, fillers, dialectal peculiarities etc. can be on an individual basis. – coleopterist Sep 27 '12 at 14:40
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    That's why Shakespeare was such a bad writer - his work is nothing but cliches – mgb Sep 27 '12 at 16:39
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    "A meaningless filler to signify..." is so deliciously self-contradictory. – RegDwigнt Sep 27 '12 at 18:47

Perhaps the word you're looking for is Meme.

"An idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture"

Memes encompass a lot more than individual words, and I think fad word may also be useful if you're trying to be specific about individual words - but a fad word is a type of meme.

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  • +1 and to the @JLG answer, the examples sound like memes sliding into cliches. – bib Sep 27 '12 at 12:40
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    I think 'meme' is too general to be of use here. As you point out, memes can be lots of things. And while the OP's examples are indeed memes, the term is used for a lot of things which are completely unrelated to what the OP was talking about. – tinyd Sep 27 '12 at 15:55

The official term for this is either semantic change, semantic shift, or semantic progression:

From the linked article (emphasis my own):

Semantic change, also known as semantic shift or semantic progression describes the evolution of word usage — usually to the point that the modern meaning is radically different from the original usage. In diachronic (or historical) linguistics, semantic change is a change in one of the meanings of a word. Every word has a variety of senses and connotations, which can be added, removed, or altered over time, often to the extent that cognates across space and time have very different meanings. The study of semantic change can be seen as part of etymology, onomasiology, semasiology, and semantics.

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  • "Semantic drift" is another synonym for this. – Avner Shahar-Kashtan Sep 27 '12 at 12:34
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    Is the use of a hedge such as like considered a semantic shift? The OP mentions that fads usually tend to disappear over time; are there temporary semantic shifts? – coleopterist Sep 27 '12 at 12:38
  • All shifts are in some sense temporary. Languages continue to evolve. – Robusto Sep 27 '12 at 12:41

If you're talking about faddish clichés, it sounds like what you're looking for here is a hackneyed refrain.

The OED definition of hackneyed is:

Used so frequently and indiscriminately as to have lost its freshness and interest; made trite and commonplace; stale.

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Clichés and memes have been mentioned, but really, the snowclone is the new cliché. Wikipedia says “A snowclone is a neologism for a type of cliché and phrasal template originally defined as ‘a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different variants’”, and mentions (eg) “comedy is the new rock ’n’ roll” and ”grey is the new black” as snowclones of the form ”X is the new Y”.

I suspect many fad (or vogue, trendy, rage) words arise or are coined via argot, cant, or jargon, and meet the needs or desires of youth voice advocates, the youth subculture, or of one in-crowd or another.

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A catchphrase (or catch-phrase) is a phrase or expression recognized by its repeated utterance. --Wikipedia

catch·phrase: a word or expression that is used repeatedly and conveniently to represent or characterize a person, group, idea, or point of view --merriam-webster

catchphrase A vogue expression, often media-inspired and usually short-lived. --grammar.about.com

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There is a difference between misusing a word because you don't understand its meaning, and using it ironically. "I am literally going to die" is an ironic use of "literally." The complaint about pedants not liking that use of "literally" is a bogus attack on supposedly hypercritical language lovers, who really wouldn't mind most casual use of such phrases -- but who do object to the sly misuse of "pedant" to suggest "asshole."

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    Hi David. I think you are saying that this phenomenon is attributable to ironic usage, but your answer doesn't clearly address the question and comes across as a little tangential. You might want to edit it to make it clearer. – Kit Z. Fox Sep 27 '12 at 19:05

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