Did you know that the word “terrific” originally meant something completely different? A lot of the words we use have changed meaning over time, differing from their common or intended use. Other words sound so much like the other words that they are often used interchangeably, like bemused and amused. These are the things that make English fun, watching the ways in which words shift with time and colloquialisms, and these entries delighted the grammar nerd in me.
Below you’ll find some of the most commonly misused words — and some that just diverged from the way they were meant be used. In the comments, sound off with some misused words that really bug you. What are words that no one seems to get right?
Here’s 22 to start:
Does not mean: Something cosmically shitty or funny that happened to you.
Does mean: An occurrence that is the opposite of what you’d expect.
Easily the most abused word in the English language, we partially have Alanis Morrisette (God love her) to blame for this one. The most “ironic” thing about the song “Ironic” is that its singer can’t define irony. (Or perhaps she’s so clever that such is the point?) A no smoking sign on your cigarette break? Unfortunate, not ironic. The good advice that you just didn’t take? Poor judgment, not irony.
Does not mean: To skim a text or browse over the key parts.
Does mean: To read something attentively.
If you’re a grad student, you’ve likely “perused” your reading at some point — by reading the first line of every paragraph or using one of the other infinite tricks grad students use to not have a meltdown. But if you look at the parts of the word, you can see how we’re all using it wrong. “Peruse” originally comes from “per use,” which traditionally indicates that you plan to “use up” the text with your passionate reading of it. Thus, the text is meant to be “per use” — or to be specifically used once. The other meaning came later.
Does not mean: To give one’s enthusiastic permission or agreement
Does mean: To passively agree, even if you have a negative opinion of what you’re agreeing to
As a feminist, I’m all into “consent” in the bedroom, but the word doesn’t quite mean what we all think it does. Consent, as an acquiescence, is far more neutral in value. If you consent to something, you’re not cheering it on. You’re allowing it to happen — with your permission. It’s more of a shrug. But assent indicates you really, really want it — just as much as Robin Thicke thinks you do. So, ladies, if you want to tell him that Yes Means Yes, make sure to give assent. It sounds more fun that way.
Does not mean: To cause or to induce something to happen, like change
Does mean: The outcome of a cause, like a “Cause and Effect” situation
This is a very common student mistake. You should never, under any circumstances, use “effect” as a verb. It’s a noun. You want to say “effect” after you take a pill and you want to know all the funny side things that happen after. The pill was the cause, the drowsiness is the effect. If you want to be a cause and “affect” change, use that “a” at the beginning instead.
Does not mean: To voluntarily do something, usually out of a moral or internal impulse
Does mean: To be forced, obligated or pressured into doing something
This means the exact opposite of what you think it does, and there’s an easy way to see how. If you have to give “compulsory service” in the military, that means you don’t have a choice. You have to sign up, like in Israel. But an impulse is that nagging voice inside you that won’t shut up until you do something — an “impulsive” decision. You don’t plan those and they often come out of nowhere. Compelled comes from “compulsory,” so if you’re “compelled” to give a truthful eye-witness testimony during a court case, that means you gotta do it. Johnny Law says.
Does not mean: Uninterested, as in “bored” by the outcome or something
Does mean: Impartial, not influenced by the outcome of something.
“Uninterested” and “disinterested” are commonly used as synonyms to indicate one’s boredom. However, disinterested instead indicates an emotional and moral distance from events. It’s not that you are bored by them. It’s that you have zero stake in what’s happening, so why does it matter to you? For instance, I’m not bored by the Kardashians; they’re rarely ever boring. However, I am profoundly disinterested in their existence.
Does not mean: Very quickly, with lightning speed
Does mean: A specific point in time.
Although “Google Instant” and “instant” coffee beg to differ, the popular use of instant commonly diverges from its intended meaning. “Instant” originally meant a very tiny fraction of time, a moment so minute it was practically infinitesimal. However, the idea of smallness here was carried over to its more common meaning, the small amount of time by which something is done or prepared. Most dictionaries now recognize both uses.
Does not mean: Regardless
Does mean: Nothing, because it’s not a real word
As covered in one of my previous posts, “irregardless” is a commonly misused word with no real meaning at all. Although used interchangeably with the proper “regardless,” the superfluous prefix “ir” adds nothing to the word. The “less” suffix already negates one’s regard, making the ir- unnecessary. However, it does make for a choice Mean Girls reference, so if that’s why you’re using it, carry on. I shan’t get in the way of Tina Fey.
Does not mean: Enormousness
Does mean: A profoundly evil or immoral act
Susan Sontag once gave us a great example of the intended use of “enormity” when she talked about the “enormity of state power,” meaning a great evil or abuse. A fun indication of how not to use it comes from George W. Bush, America’s favorite president-cum-nude painter. When he was voted into office, Dubya remarked that he “couldn’t believe the enormity” of the situation. He’s a pretty great example of how not to use the English language, ever.
Does not mean: Severe or intense
Does mean: A condition or state that lasts for a protracted period
Do you have “chronic” neck pains or a “chronic” illness? Then you better get used to it, because the original definition of chronic indicates that malady will be hanging around for a while. “Chronic” refers to things that are long-lived, and a chronic illness might be Scarlet Fever or tuberculosis — that kind of shit you that won’t go away. Americans in the audience, aren’t you glad you don’t have to deal with TB anymore?
Does not mean: For example
Does mean: In other words
Everyone seems to use i.e. to refer to a parenthetical example, but you should actually use e.g. instead. For instance, if you were referring to one of the many illnesses we no longer have to worry about, you would say, “Man, I’m glad I don’t have to worry about those Medieval ailments (e.g. the Bubonic plague)!” I.e. is best used to mean “in other words,” coming from the Latin for “that is.” So if Buster Bluth were talking about his onetime girlfriend, Starla, he might say: “Starla (i.e. ‘that whore’).”
Does not mean: The pinnacle or the best
Does mean: The final entry in a list of items
Easy way to remember this: The word “penultimate” means next to the last, not next to the best. Thus, if you take the prefix off, it simply means “the last” — but not necessarily the best. So if you want to have the ultimate sex, you better beware because you might not be ever having sex again. George, watch out for that oncoming bus.
Does not mean: To completely wipe out or annihilate
Does mean: To eradicate ten percent
This is a fun one, because history is cool. Decimate comes from a Roman term. “Decimation” was a punishment commonly doled out entailing the killing of one out of every ten men. You can see this because the prefix “dec” indicates ten — like the “Decalogue” or “Ten Commandments.” If you want to instead indicate that you plan on total annihilation, you could instead use exterminate, slaughter or obliterate, all equally light-hearted.
Does not mean: A cure
Does mean: A cure-all, as in a medication that would cure a wide variety of ailments
There’s a very subtle difference between these two versions. Panacea often just gets used to mean a cure — but isn’t specific about the number. If Rahm Emanuel wanted to announce he had a “panacea” for Chicago’s failing schools, that wouldn’t be correct. That would be a single cure fighting a single problem. If he instead wanted to tell us he had a “panacea” for our many structural issues, that would be unlikely — but at least grammatical. The key is “pan,” which is the Latin meaning “all” — like “pansexual” or “pantheistic.”
Does not mean: As if by luck
Does mean: As if by chance
If you’re partying with Daft Punk, you can’t be up all night to get fortuitous. Because of it looks like the word “fortune,” it’s commonly confused with “lucky.” But for our wheel of fortune fans in the room, you know that the word fortune is just as often use to describe occurrences of chance. If you bumped into your evil ex on the street, you can be assured it’s not “lucky” — but it would certainly be “fortuitous,” just not in a happy way.
Does not mean: A great amount of something
Does mean: An amount in excess of what is necessary
The two meanings are almost interchangeable, and the common use of the word is much more widespread than its original meaning. Plethora once would be used to indicate having over the quantity you need, like if you have too many Tribbles on the Starship Enterprise. What could you possibly do with all those Tribbles? However, it later came to mean a “fuckton,” and you can easily have both kinds of plethoras at the same time.
Does not mean: An exceedingly troublesome or unfortunate event.
Does mean: A satirical or parodic rendering
Based on the word’s intended definition, you could actually call The Onion a “travesty of the real world.” According to Merriam Webster, the word dates back to the 17th century, when it was used to indicate a distorted reality for the purposes of mockery. Jonathan Swift’s Guillver’s Travels would then be considered one of the great travesties of all time.
Does not mean: Feeling sick to one’s stomach
Does mean: Causing the feelings of sickness and nausea
Have you ever seen Never Been Kissed? They bring this one up in the movie. If you eat too much at dinner and have a difficult time digesting it, you would not feel nauseous. You feel “nauseated,” meaning that all the grease on that delicious Italian dish made you ill. However, were you to fart, you might emit a “nauseous gas,” one that makes others around you feel nauseous.
Does not mean: Repetitive
Does mean: Unnecessary, excessive, expendable
There’s a great way to remember this from the British version of The Office. When the bosses discuss laying off some of the employees or closing the branches of the company, they rarely say “firings.” Instead they use what is intended euphemism: “redundancies.” One wouldn’t want to make things worse by saying the word “fire” now. However, it’s actually worse (a dysphemism, in a way) — because you’re being told that in addition to losing your job, you were considered useless and unnecessary. Great ego boost.
Used today as: Awesome
Originally meant: Inspiring fear
The word originally came from “terror” and “terrifying” — but no one ever uses it that way today. The meaning changed over time, and most of the old usage has been wiped out. However, you can see where the new meaning comes from. If something is truly terrifying, that likely means its awesome “awesome” (also meaning worthy of or inspiring “awe”). Say you saw Godzilla. He would both be awesome and terrifying, and you would likely be dead. Those are some big ass feet.
Does not mean: To find funny, to be amused by something
Does mean: To find puzzling, to be confused by something
English speakers often use the word “bemused” in place of amused — because they sound almost like the same word. However, that’s not what it actually means. You can think of bemused like “bewildered.” Also, if you were truly “bewitched” by something — as in a spell were cast over you by a witch or wizard — you may be confused by it. Darren in Bewitched spent most of the show bemused by his wife’s schemes. Poor Darren.
Should not be used: To indicate strong emphasis (like the German “doch”) or as a way to comment on something that did not happen in reality but occurred figuratively
Should be used: To indicate that something actually happened
This is a very commonly known misused word, so much so that I feel like we shouldn’t even have to cover it. But I won’t pass up a great Parks and Rec reference. Chris Traeger uses “literally” to commonly indicate his enthusiasm for things. For instance, he says about Leslie: “Leslie Knope is literally overflowing with ideas for this town.” He does not mean that, in real life, she’s overflowing with ideas. That sounds messy. It’s figurative. Also, Ann Perkins’ Inbox isn’t completely full of penises, which would be difficult because there’s a lot of storage up in there, but she did get sent a whole lot of dick pics. Some girls have all the luck.