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A counterword (also spelled counter word and counter-word)[1] is a word such as "so" that is frequently used to answer ("counter") in a reflex-like manner and that has due to this frequent use quickly taken on a new, much less specific or much looser meaning or is even almost meaningless or performs a completely new function.[2] The word "so", for example, is frequently used to begin an answer in the sense of "Well,..." or to function as an indirect way of saying "Before answering that, I'd like to..." or even instead of saying "On the contrary,..." or "No, I...".

In a more general sense, the term is used for such words also when they are not used as a reflex-like answer and even for any widely used words that (due to a similar change) now have a broad and vague range of meanings in many very different situations (e.g. case, awfully, fix, job, payoff).[3]

Since such change due to very frequent use occurs much more rapidly than the change in meaning all words go through, and since such words are even sometimes still simultaneously used in their original sense, the new usage is often considered incorrect by some speakers. Other examples include nice, terrific, terrible, awful, tremendous, swell, hopefully and very fine (degrading the meaning of fine to "OK").

The Oxford English Dictionary does not support this and defines counter-word as "countersign", noting that its usage is military and obsolete with a single quotation from 1678.[4]


  1. ^ "Wordsmyth Dictionary".
    - "the definition of counterword".
  2. ^ "Meaning of counterword". InfoPlease.
    - "Counterword definition and meaning". Collins English Dictionary.
  3. ^ "Definition of COUNTERWORD".
  4. ^ "counter-word", Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 17 November 2018. (subscription required)