Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Walking Our Pet Words


An embarrassing story from teen years: I’m napping hard in my tent, exhausted from the grueling schedule of cycling up and down hills, navigating narrow country roads, and trying to avoid the fate of unfortunate roadside distraction. What normal 17-year-old girl signs herself up for a cycling tour around the Olympic Peninsula? Anyway, I was so exhausted I forgot all about our usual afternoon agenda meeting. When I finally woke up with that awful White Rabbit yelp of “I’m late! I’m late!” I knew I would not be able to sneak in unobtrusively. My embarrassment was doubled when the group all paused, turned to face me, gleefully shouting, “Terrific!” It was then I knew they were calling me out on my pet word.

Pet words. Admit it–you have at least one.  Maybe you have several on a leash and you walk them out and about without realizing it.

I happened upon Matthew J.X. Malady’s article “You Have A Word That You Constantly Use Without Realizing It — Here’s Where You Got It.” Personally I prefer the email forward title of “How ‘Signature Words Spread.”

As I read the article I began to better understand why I latch on to certain words. Here’s a snippet:

Diane Boxer, a professor at the University of Florida who specializes in sociolinguistics, says that when we find ourselves in a situation where someone uses language differently than we do, or words we’re unfamiliar with, we usually respond in one of two ways.

“We either start to mimic them in some way, or distinguish ourselves from their usage,” she says. “This has to do with how we want to portray our identities. If we identify with them, want to be like them, we’ll start speaking like they do.”

I can relate to that point. I may not do it consciously, although I think my brain picks up on admiration and rolls out a word or phrase associated with that person or character. However, it is embarrassing when we are called out on it. The article cites another reason we adopt pet words.


Stanford psychology professorBenoit Monin, I shouldn’t pat myself on the back too fervently. In many cases, when we decide to latch onto these sorts of words, it’s because we’re using language to put on a show. “There could be some element of language snobbery here,” says Monin, whose research focuses on self-image and social norms. “Like, ‘I’m a discriminate language user, and I use these rare words that few people use, and by using them I show that I’m educated.’ ”   

Oh dear, I don’t want to be considered a snob.  What about aficionado? I collect words. Some of them sound so cool I can’t avoid repeating them. There is also that “why order vanilla when huckleberry creme is available?” It seems so plebian to say plain words when so many variants are available. Is that snobbery  or creatively erudite?

The article goes on to mention research conducted by Duke University professor Dan Ariely and Stanford’s Jonathan Levay.

Ariely and Levav say that there exists “the desire to portray oneself as interesting and unique” when we interact with others, and that we will in some cases make irrational decisions to avoid looking like a copycat.  

I will admit I often strive to set myself apart. I often find myself grasping at ways to express myself in a memorable manner. Sometimes this works and sometimes this fails. As in Epic Failure. Note to self: check with urban dictionary before employing certain terms with teens when teaching.

This malady doesn’t cover one very prominent reason for signature or pet words: laziness. I know I fall back on certain words because I get into a habit of saying them.  When my “terrific” warning light flashes on my brain instrument panel, I know I’m close to getting a drubbing on overusage. This week I know I have to rid myself of “channeling” and “solid.” I recently purged lexicon retorts of “perfect.”

Do you have pet words you walk long and often? Is difficult for you to curb their exuberance to romp?

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15 thoughts on “Walking Our Pet Words

  1. Hmm, I can’t think of any of my pet words at the moment, though I’m sure I have several. I’ll probably think of one at 3 am tonight. That’s often when things come to me… I guess I do say “Argh” a lot to avoid swearing around my kids. Perhaps that makes me a pirate. 😉

    Great post!

  2. Mine fluctuate depending on what I’m exposed to and what ones stick in my brain at any given time.

  3. Not going to lie–I do get impressed when people use unusual words in conversation. There’s a difference (I think) between being disingenuous or showing off, and picking out a word to use because you think it’s rare and beautiful. Since there are so many rare and beautiful words to use, why not use them? 🙂

  4. “No worries” instead of “that’s ok” or “don’t worry about it.” I first took up this phrase when traveling in Australia. It’s stuck with me ever since.

    Thankfully, the phrase “ta” instead of “thank you” did not. Although it sounds nice when someone in Australia says it.

  5. So I guess I’m sounding pretty dull when it comes to pet words…I’ll have to think more on this…

  6. As a newspaper reporter, I loved the word “apparently” — I think because it served as a great segue to editorializing.

    When I speak, I often find myself saying “obtuse” and “ostentatious.” But I think that will change as soon as I figure out a way to no longer interact with obtuse, ostentatious people. Wish me luck!

  7. Well, this conversation was Terrific!!

  8. What a great post! I overuse the word ‘lovely’… not sure where I picked that one up…

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