7 min Read
January 17, 2024

Words to Avoid—2024 Edition

Welcome to our 2024 Words to Avoid list, which exposes everyday jargon and overused buzzwords from which we could all use some space. The new year is a perfect time to explore ways to communicate more effectively. When writing or speaking, we should ask ourselves — Is the word worn out? Potentially harmful? Misused? Essentially meaningless? If the words we use check one or more of these boxes, it might be time to swap them out. 

As always, we want to state that there’s no need to break up with all of these words and permanently remove them from your vocabulary. There is, however, merit in taking a moment to think about the context in which we use these words in our daily work and contemplating whether there are stronger, more accurate, or more inclusive terms to express our ideas.  

Before we reveal this year’s wordy offenders, we want to thank our colleagues, readers, and network for their annual submissions. It’s been thirteen years (and counting!) since our first Words to Avoid list, and we can’t thank you enough for joining us each year. For a more comprehensive list, you can view our Words to Avoid Glossary, containing all the words and phrases we find ourselves second-guessing.

Alright, let’s get to it!

  • Journey: This term has become overused in every way possible. Any experience — transformative or evolutionary, reaching a major milestone, or overcoming a difficult obstacle — is labeled a “journey.” Countless organizations use the word “journey” to describe the pursuit of a significant goal. However, reaching a goal is not always a “journey.” Unless you have traveled a notable distance like Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings, you have probably not been on a journey. Let’s try being less flowery with our descriptions and, instead, explain achievements for what they are using alternative terms like “path,” “process,” “leadership development,” or “growth,” which are more defined and create a clearer picture for your audiences.
  • Able-bodied: This term is widely used to describe people who do not have a disability. While people may use the word without meaning harm, “able-bodied” feeds into discrimination against people with a disability and implies those without are “superior.” Furthermore, the word “able-bodied” insinuates that all people with disabilities do not have “normal” bodies and cannot use their bodies “properly,” which is an untrue and hurtful narrative. When, in reality, most of us will experience either being temporarily or permanently disabled at some point in our lifetime due to aging or physical and mental health conditions. Meaning, that we are all momentarily living without a disability. Therefore, instead of thinking of disability as a binary (non-disabled vs. abled), we should approach the concept as a state of being many of us will encounter rather than an ailment or hindrance that others us from one another. Additionally, we should shift our focus towards accessibility and how we can create more inclusive environments for people currently living with a disability and those who will experience a disability in the future. As for possible word alternatives, we recommend replacing “able-bodied” with “does not have a disability” or “is not living with a disability.”
  • Critical: The word “critical” implies that a situation will exacerbate or become disastrous, severe, or life-threatening. Nowadays, it is commonly used to express need or emphasize importance — even if the important thing isn’t that important. For this reason, using the word “critical” in non-urgent situations can take away from events that are actually “critical” because we can no longer differentiate a serious situation from just another buzzword calling for our attention. In the new year, we suggest sparingly using the word to avoid overdramatizing scenarios.
  • Leverage: A repeat offender, the word “leverage” first featured in our 2015 list and it earns its place here today because of its continued overuse. The word stems from the Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes, who created a lever to move immovable objects. Today, the word is almost synonymous with “use.” For many organizations, the term implies using a specific thing, skill, or insight to gain an advantage or accomplish a goal — making them experts in their sector. We suggest moving away from the word “leverage” as it can feel empty, and instead being more specific about what you’re doing to achieve your plans.
  • AI/Artificial Intelligence: Many people now use the term “AI” to describe any form of artificial intelligence. This practice creates confusion and spreads misinformation because concerns, challenges, and fears about the ethical uses of AI are freely spoken about in the media without providing specific information about the type of AI or contextualizing how the AI tools are used. We see a similar occurrence in the workplace where organizations might share they use artificial intelligence but are not specific about how, or organizations may provide general positive/negative thoughts about AI without defining which types of AI they are referring to and the angle from which they are approaching AI. With so much unease and hesitation surrounding artificial intelligence, it’s important to be specific so we’re not contributing to sensationalized narratives or misrepresenting how we use AI. For example, there’s a big difference between using AI tools to help with productivity, like notetaking, versus using AI to create images rather than sourcing stock or original photography – which comes with some ethical considerations. Therefore, we suggest being clear and descriptive when discussing artificial intelligence tools and how we apply them in our lives and work.
  • Uplift: The term “uplift” tends to be vague as it carries many definitions, some of which include “to improve,” “to lift to a higher position,” “to increase confidence,” and “to make a person feel more cheerful.” However, we’ve noticed the word used many times in the nonprofit sector to signal that a voice has been “raised” or “given” to underrepresented or excluded communities so that they can be heard. This idea can imply that underrepresented groups exist in “lower positions” and “need to improve,” which reinforces problematic savior narratives in the nonprofit world that donors or foundations exist or are needed to empower underrepresented groups of people. It’s important to avoid these paternalistic power dynamics, so for this reason we recommend leaving the idea of “uplifting” behind because of the negative connotations it can carry, and instead consider ways in which different types of support can help amplify existing voices and bring more people in.
  • Innovate: Another word guilty of being overused. The term “innovate” is slapped on as a slogan for any organization’s endeavors — both in the nonprofit and for-profit space — even if the effort is not ground-breaking, original, or inventive. Because of its overuse, the word’s meaning is diluted. “Innovate” instead takes the form of a fluffy, empty buzzword that diminishes from actual breakthroughs that require tireless work. Additionally, if everything is deemed an “innovation” we are left with no real reason to actually innovate. As we move into the new year, we suggest trying to describe your approach or skills in a more nuanced way that reflects your progress rather than simply labeling them as innovative.
  • Underprivileged: The word “underprivileged” is used to describe communities that do not have the same standard of living as those who are considered to be in the “majority.” It may reference a wide range of people, including low-income communities, those with fewer opportunities, and countries whose governments do not provide enough resources to foster equity. Overall, the word “underprivileged” is condescending as it lacks the full representation of the power dynamics and conditions that exist; communities are underprivileged through the choices and policies of those in positions of power. So, instead, let’s use terms that recognize the experience and capture the nuances and complexity of community and individual situations; we recommend opting for “under-resourced,” “historically discriminated,” or “historically marginalized.” 

We hope this list provides you and your colleagues with a starting point to communicate more clearly in the new year and also gets you thinking about other words or phrases that may be overused or can carry negative connotations. Many organizations are also gathering words and phrases that might be overused, harmful, or stigmatizing, creating a language guide, and actively training their team on how to use it. Feel free to reach out to us if we can help conduct a process to identify and develop a language guide for your organization. 


For additional information on some of the choices above, check out the resources below: