non-vocab words – volume 1

The English language is ever evolving. New words are added to the dictionary annually, and the way we use certain words has updated with each new generation. For example, anybody remember when ‘bad’ used to mean ‘good’? However, there are some words and phrases that continue to be problematic. We know about some of them (the n-word, that’s so gay, retarded, etc.), but there are others that may not be as obvious. I am taking the time to share with you some non-vocab words: words that I am working out of my daily use in problematic contexts. I encourage you to do the same, do some research, or challenge me in my thinking.

For each word or phrase, I’ll talk about why it’s problematic and provide some alternatives. If similar logic applies to other words or phrases, I’ll list them in “See Also”.

If you have other words or phrases you think I should discuss, feel free to leave them in the comments.


Let’s start out with an easier one. The dictionary definition of starving states that one is “dying or perishing from lack of food or nourishment”. While there are people that are legitimately starving, I’m assuming that the majority of you, dear readers, are not. If you have eaten in the last 24 hours, you aren’t starving. You could very well be hungry and dehydrated but you are likely not starving. Make sense?

words and phrases to use instead

  • hungry
  • ravenous
  • i could eat a…
    • horse
    • pig
    • unicorn
  • i have the munchies
  • my stomach feels empty
  • food sounds amazing right now

see also

  • Famished: you are (probably) not in a famine. chill.
  • Dying (of hunger/thirst): nope. you’re not.
  • Under- or malnourished: again with the nope.


Now that you see how this goes, these will get a bit tougher. A throwback to 1985, lame has generally been used to describe something that is awkward, dull, boring, unsophisticated, and uninteresting. We look past the fact that this word is also a word that can describe people that may have a physical ailment or disability that can make walking difficult. By using the word “lame” to describe something as uninteresting, we are ultimately describing folx who identify as lame as uninteresting, as well.

words and phrases to use instead

  • silly
  • clumsy
  • unsatisfactory
  • not fun
  • awkward, dull, boring, unsophisticated, or uninteresting 🙂


Okay, y’all. This one is a bit controversial but hear me out. The first listed definition of the word “crazy” in the dictionary is “mentally deranged; demented; insane”. We use this word colloquially to mean so many other things, but the reality is that the original meaning of this word was rooted in the oppression of people with mental illness. Our society marginalizes people with mental illness(es) way too often to also keep this word in our vocabularies.

words to use instead

  • wild
  • outrageous
  • unbelievable
  • wacky
  • silly
  • goofy
  • ludicrous
  • odd
  • passionate

see also

  • Psycho
  • Looney (unless referring to the Toons)
  • Insane

man up

As a society, we socialize our boys (people assigned male at birth) to be tough. We teach them that showing emotion is “for girls” and we expect boys who learn not to show emotion to grow into fully-formed, emotionally stable human beings. One of the ways we do this is by telling boys to “man-up”. Man up is defined, informally, as “to act in a typically masculine way, as in taking responsibility or making tough decisions”. Unfortunately, however, man up is often used as a way to tell boys (and men) not to do feminine things like cry, or show emotion. Instead, we should respond to those moments with compassion, empathy, encouragement, and love. Emotions are not a gendered experience.

words and phrases to use instead

  • Why are you crying? Would you like to talk?
  • Stick with it!
  • It is okay to be sad and to cry.
  • This decision seems difficult to make. Do you need a moment to think?
  • It’s time for you to…
    • Face the music
    • Roll up your sleeves
    • Get your act together
    • Knuckle down
    • Make every effort
    • Do your best

see also

  • take it like a man
  • be a man

(lowest on the) totem pole

Totem poles are monuments created by First Nations of the North American Pacific Northwest to represent and commemorate ancestry, history, people, or events. Totem poles are built for a variety of purposes and take a skilled artist to be a true totem pole. The word “totem” was derived from the Algonquian language for “clan”, and while many totem poles are carved to honor family, they are also used to symbolize mythological and historical characters and events.

While the retort to this is often something along the lines of “the {being} at the bottom of the totem pole is supporting all the others and is therefore the strongest”, that may also be just as problematic. Truth is, Western society places views on hierarchy in ways that First Nations do not. The figure at the base may have been chosen for a variety of reasons, same as the figure at the top. The totem pole could also be 1 single ornate or plain figure.

words and phrases to use instead

  • Back seat
  • Benchwarmer
  • Second string
  • Newbie
  • Rookie
  • Novice

what are some problematic words or phrases you know? leave them in the comments below, and you may see them soon!

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