25 Words That Don’t Mean What You Think They Do

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If there’s one thing that’s sure to irritate a nit-picking grammar pedant, it’s someone saying that they “literally” jumped out of their skin, or that they “literally” died laughing. Neither of those things literally happened (or at least we hope they didn’t). Instead they happened figuratively, whereas literally means “actually,” “exactly,” or “in a literal sense.” But literally gets misused so often that the looser, emphatic use of it to mean “figuratively” or “effectively” has now landed itself a place in the dictionary—much to some people’s annoyance.

Elsewhere in the dictionary, however, there are plenty of words being misused and misinterpreted, many of which aren’t anywhere near as well-known or as easy to spot as literally—and so might find their way into the day-to-day language of even the most careful grammarians.

1. BARTER DOESN'T MEAN "HAGGLE."

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Far from it, in fact. If you haggle, you negotiate a cash price. If you barter, you exchange one skill, commodity, or thing for another—typically without money being involved at all.

2. BEMUSED DOESN'T MEAN "AMUSED."

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Strictly speaking, bemused and amused don’t mean the same thing. Although the use of bemused to mean “wryly amused” is so widespread nowadays that it has found its way into the dictionary, bemused actually means “dazed,” “bewildered,” or “addled.”

3. DEPRECIATE DOESN’T MEAN “DEPRECATE.”

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If something depreciates, then it reduces in value. To deprecate something is to express disapproval of it, or to denounce or criticize it. Although there’s some crossover between the two (to be self-deprecating is basically the same as being self-depreciating, despite the latter being 40 times rarer as an expression), depreciation is more concerned with lowering value of something rather than belittling or disapproving of it.

4. DILEMMA DOESN’T MEAN “QUANDARY.”

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The “di–” of dilemma means “two,” so a dilemma is really a difficult situation in which a choice has to be made between two alternatives. It’s not, strictly speaking, just a problem or a quandary. As for a choice between three alternatives? Yep, that’s a trilemma.

5. DISINTERESTED DOESN’T MEAN “UNINTERESTED.”

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Many people don’t realize that there is a difference at all here. Uninterested means “not interested” and is a synonym of words like “bored,” “impervious,” “indifferent” and “unemotional.” Disinterested means “not having an interest” in something, and as such is a synonym of words like “impartial,” “uninvolved,” or “unbiased.” The two are used so interchangeably these days that they’ve effectively become synonyms of one another—but it’s a distinction some speakers and style guides are keen to maintain.

6. ELECTROCUTE DOESN’T MEAN “TO GET AN ELECTRIC SHOCK.”

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This one is staring you in the face: electrocute is a portmanteau of “electric execution.” So to be electrocuted is to be put to death or be injured by an electric current, not merely to receive an electric shock.

7. ENORMITY DOESN’T MEAN “ENORMOUSNESS.”

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Enormity, some people insist, is improperly used to denote large size,” explains Merriam-Webster. “They insist on enormousness for this meaning, and would limit enormity to the meaning ‘great wickedness.’” If you sign up to that rule, you can talk about the enormity of heinous things like crimes or corruption, but not of sizable things (unless their size is particularly heinous or unpleasant). It’s a subtle distinction, but it certainly exists.

8. FACTOID DOESN’T MEAN “FACT.”

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Norman Mailer coined the word factoid in 1973, but unlike most people who use it today, he did not intend it to mean “a throwaway piece of trivia.” Instead factoids, he explained, are “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority.” In other words, it’s an invented bit of fake news that is only taken as true because it has appeared in print.

9. FLAUNT DOESN’T MEAN “FLOUT.”

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Flaunting involves showing off. You can flout the rules, but you can’t flaunt them no matter how often those two get confused.

10. FORTUITOUS DOESN’T MEAN “FORTUNATE.”

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The similarity between fortuitous and fortunate has led to this pair becoming all but interchangeable. But if you want to get pedantic, something that is fortuitous just happens by chance or luck. If it happens by good luck, only then is it fortunate.

11. GRIZZLY DOESN’T MEAN “HORRIBLE.”

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The word you’re looking for there is probably grisly. In fact, despite grizzly bears being brown, grizzly actually means “gray-haired.”

12. HONE DOESN’T MEAN “TO CLOSE IN.”

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Hone means simply “sharpen,” so you can hone your wits or your senses, but you can’t hone in on something. You can, however, home in on it.

13. LOATH DOESN’T MEAN “HATE.”

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Just as loathe-with-an-E doesn’t mean “unwilling.” If you’re loath to do something, then you don’t want to do it. You might also loathe it, but of the two loathe-with-an-E is the verb and means simply “to dislike greatly.”

14. LUXURIANT DOESN’T MEAN “LUXURIOUS.”

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Although these two are widely used interchangeably, luxuriant and luxurious are not really synonyms. Something that is luxurious is characterized by luxury, whereas something that is luxuriant is lush, overblown, or prolifically overabundant.

15. NONPLUSSED DOESN’T MEAN “NOT BOTHERED.”

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Many people use nonplussed to mean “unperturbed” or “unaffected,” but it actually means “perplexed” or “confounded.” It derives from the Latin expression non plus, which literally means “no more,” and in this context refers to a situation in which you’re so utterly confused or bewildered that you can’t say or do anything else.

16. OBLIVIOUS DOESN’T MEAN “UNAWARE.”

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Or at least, it didn’t originally. Oblivious derives from the same root as oblivion and originally meant “forgetful” or “lacking memory” when it first appeared in the language in the 15th century. The looser and now much more widespread use of oblivious to mean “unaware” or “unconcerned” is a later development of that original meaning, but isn’t universally accepted.

17. PERUSE DOESN’T MEAN “BROWSE.”

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You’ll often hear people talk about idly perusing magazines or websites, with the implication that they’re casually glancing over them and not taking them in in too much detail. In fact, what they’re saying is quite the opposite: the “per–” of peruse means “thoroughly” or “completely” (just as it does in words like perturb and perfect), so perusing something actually means studying it in great detail. (However, some dictionaries also include the more recent meaning of "to read casually.")

18. PLETHORA DOESN’T MEAN “A LOT OF.”

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Strictly speaking, it means “too much of,” or “an overabundance of.” Originally, plethora was a medical term referring to a surplus or imbalance of bodily fluids—and in particular blood—that could be blamed for a period of ill health; in that sense it literally means “fullness” in Greek.

19. PREVARICATE DOESN’T MEAN “TO PUT OFF.”

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Confusion with procrastinate is probably at the root of the use of prevaricate to mean “to waste or play for time” or “to put off to a later date.” Instead, to prevaricate actually means “to speak or act evasively.” You might have the intention of stalling for time in doing so, but that’s not the word’s meaning.

20. REFUTE DOESN’T MEAN “DENY.”

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“I refute that!” means that you can prove it to be false, not merely that you deny or reject that it’s true.

21. REGULARLY DOESN’T MEAN “OFTEN.”

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If something happens regularly, then it happens at regular, ordered intervals or in a predictable, uniform way. How often (or how seldom) those intervals occur isn’t actually implied by the word itself, so regularly doesn’t mean the same as “frequently.”

22. RETICENT DOESN’T MEAN “HESITANT.”

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Reticent means “unwilling to speak” or “not forthcoming.” It’s used so often in place of reluctant—which just means “unwilling”—that it’s often listed in the dictionary as a synonym of “unenthusiastic” or “disinclined,” but strictly speaking it’s a lot more specific than that.

23. SALUBRIOUS DOESN’T MEAN “GOOD.”

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The adjective salubrious is often used in a fairly general way to describe anything that is positive, or has a positive effect or influence. Actually, salubrious derives from a Latin word literally meaning “safe” or “healthy,” and so should only ever be used to describe things that are positive or beneficial to your health.

24. TORTUOUS DOESN’T MEAN “UNBEARABLE.”

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The word you’re looking for there is torturous (as in torture) with a second R. Something that is tortuous is complexly twisting or meandering, or full of twists and turns.

25. TRAVESTY DOESN’T MEAN “DISASTER.”

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“Oh, it was an absolute travesty!” Confusion with the word tragedy has led to any deplorable occurrence or situation being described as a travesty, but that’s not really what the word means. A travesty is a distorted, unpleasantly mutated version or imitation of something—so a “travesty of justice” isn’t just bad justice, it’s a perverted, burlesque form of true justice. In that sense, travesty derives from a French word meaning “to disguise.”

10 Words and Phrases That Came From TV Shows

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.

Television can be a hotbed of creativity (or mediocrity, depending on who you ask). But it's not just characters and storylines writers are coming up with—they also coin words. Here are 10 surprising words that were invented thanks to TV.

1. POINDEXTER

While this term for a studious nerd might seem very 1980s, it actually comes from a cartoon character introduced on TV in 1959. In the series Felix the Cat, Poindexter is the feline’s bespectacled, genius nephew, supposedly named for Emmet Poindexter, the series creator’s lawyer.

2. EYE CANDY

This phrase meaning any thing or person that offers visual appeal but not much substance originally referred to such a feature of a TV program. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it first appeared in 1978 issue of a Louisiana newspaper called The Hammond Daily Star: “Sex … is more blatant ... ‘Eye candy,' as one network executive calls it.” Ear candy is slightly earlier, from the title of a 1977 album by Helen Reddy, while arm candy is later, from 1992.

3. RIBBIT

Think frogs have always been known to say “ribbit”? Think again: According to the OED, this onomatopoeia might have originated on a TV show in the late-1960s. While we can’t say for sure that absolutely no one was making this frog sound before then, the earliest recorded usage found so far (according to linguist Ben Zimmer) is from a 1965 episode of Gilligan’s Island, in which Mel Blanc voiced a character called Ribbit the Frog. This predates the OED’s earliest entry, which is from a 1968 episode of the Smother Brothers Comedy Hour: “That’s right. Ribit! .. I am a frog.”

4. SORRY ABOUT THAT

You've probably used this expression of regret more than once in your life, but did you know it was popularized by Get Smart? It's one of the many catchphrases from the late 1960s TV show. Others include “missed it by that much” and “the old (so-and-so) trick.”

5. CROMULENT

Cromulent is a perfectly cromulent word, as far as the OED is concerned. This adjective invented on The Simpsons means “acceptable, adequate, satisfactory.” Other OED words the denizens of Springfield popularized are meh (perhaps influenced by the Yiddish “me,” meaning “be it as it may, so-so,” from 1928 or earlier), d’oh (the earliest recorded usage is from a 1945 British radio show), and embiggen, which first appeared in an 1884 publication by English publisher George Bell: “Are there not, however, barbarous verbs in all languages? … The people magnified them, to make great or embiggen, if we may invent an English parallel as ugly.”

6. FIVE-O

The OED’s earliest citation of this slang term for the police is from a 1983 article in The New York Times, although it was probably in use long before that. The moniker comes from Hawaii Five-O, which premiered in 1968. In the show, five-o refers to a particular police unit and apparently was named in honor of Hawaii being the 50th state.

7. GOMER

While the word gomer has been around since the year 1000 (referring to a Hebrew unit of measure), the sense of someone stupid or inept comes from the inept titular character in the 1960s show Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. It’s also a derogatory name among medical professionals for a difficult patient, especially an elderly one.

8. COWABUNGA

Sure, the 1960s surfing slang might have regained popularity in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s due to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series, but it originated way before then. Chief Thunderthud, a character on the 1950s children’s show Howdy Doody would use it as faux Native American language. After that, it somehow made its way into surfer slang, hence becoming a catchphrase of Michelangelo, the hard-partying, surfing ninja turtle.

9. HAR DE HAR

The next time you want to laugh in a sarcastic, old-timey way, thank Jackie Gleason for popularizing har de har via his iconic 1950s show, The Honeymooners.

10. SPAM

So how in the world did spam, originally the name of a canned ham, come to mean junk email or to inundate with junk emails or postings? Chalk it up to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The food Spam (which stands for either “spiced ham” or “shoulder of pork and ham”) was invented during the Great Depression in the late 1930s. Fast forward 40-some-odd years and the British sketch comics were singing incessantly about it. This apparently was the inspiration for the computer slang that came about in the early 1990s.

38 Word Usage Mistakes Even Smart People Make

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English vocabulary is full of pitfalls that you might not be aware of. Don't let them trip you up.

1. INVARIABLY

If something happens invariably, it always happens. To be invariable is to never vary. The word is sometimes used to mean frequently, which has more leeway.

2. COMPRISE/COMPOSE

A whole comprises its parts. The alphabet comprises 26 letters. The U.S. comprises 50 states. But people tend to say is comprised of when they mean comprise. If your instinct is to use the is … of version, then substitute composed. The whole is composed of its parts.

3. FREE REIN

The words rein and reign are commonly confused. Reign is a period of power or authority—kings and queens reign—and a good way to remember it is to note that the g relates it to royal words like regent and regal. A rein is a strap used to control a horse. The confusion comes in when the control of a horse is used as a metaphor for limits on power or authority. Free rein comes from such a metaphor. If you have free rein you can do what you want because no one is tightening the reins.

4. JUST DESERTS

There is only one s in the desert of just deserts. It is not the dessert of after-dinner treats nor the dry and sandy desert. It comes from an old noun form of the verb deserve. A desert is a thing which is deserved.

5. TORTUOUS/TORTUROUS

Tortuous is not the same as torturous. Something that is tortuous has many twists and turns, like a winding road or a complicated argument. It’s just a description. It makes no judgment on what the experience of following that road or argument is like. Torturous, on the other hand, is a harsh judgment—“It was torture!”

6. EFFECT/AFFECT

When you want to talk about the influence of one thing on another, effect is the noun and affect is the verb. Weather affects crop yields. Weather has an effect on crop yields. Basically, if you can put a the or an in front of it, use effect.

7. EXCEPT/ACCEPT

People rarely use accept when they mean except, but often put except where they shouldn’t. To accept something is to receive, admit, or take on. To except is to exclude or leave out—“I’ll take all the flavors except orange.” The x in except is a good clue to whether you’ve got it right. Are you xing something out with the word? No? Then consider changing it.

8. DISCREET/DISCRETE

Discreet means hush-hush or private. Discrete means separate, divided, or distinct. In discreet, the two Es are huddled together, telling secrets. In discrete, they are separated and distinguished from each other by the intervening t.

9. I.E./E.G.

When you add information to a sentence with parentheses, you’re more likely to need e.g., which means “for example,” than i.e., which means “in other words” or “which is to say ...” An easy way to remember them is that e.g. is eg-zample and i.e. is “in effect.”

10. CITE/SITE

People didn’t have as much trouble with these two before websites came along and everyone started talking about sites a lot more than they used to. A site is a location or place. Cite, on the other hand, is a verb meaning to quote or reference something else. You can cite a website, but not the other way around. If you’re using site as a verb, it’s probably wrong.

11. DISINTERESTED/UNINTERESTED

People sometimes use disinterested when they really mean uninterested. To be uninterested is to be bored or indifferent to something; this is the sense most everyday matters call for. Disinterested means impartial or having no personal stake in the matter. You want a judge or referee to be disinterested, but not necessarily uninterested. 

12. FLOUT/FLAUNT

Are you talking about showing off? Then you don’t mean flout, you mean flaunt. To flout is to ignore the rules. You can think of flaunt as the longer showier one, with that extra letter it goes around flaunting. You can flout a law, agreement, or convention, but you can flaunt almost anything.

13. PHASE/FAZE

Phase is the more common word and usually the right choice, except in those situations where it means “to bother.” If something doesn’t bother you, it doesn’t faze you. Faze is almost always used after a negative, so be on alert if there is an isn’t/wasn’t/doesn’t nearby. 

14. LOATH/LOATHE

Loath is reluctant or unwilling, while to loathe is to hate. You are loath to do the things you loathe, which makes it confusing, but you can keep them clear by noting whether the word has a "to be" verb on one side and a to on the other (he is loath to, I would be loath to), in which case loath is correct, or it can be substituted by hate (I loathe mosquitoes), in which case you need the e on the end.

15. WAVE/WAIVE

The word wave is far more frequent than waive and has a more concrete meaning of undulating motion. It’s often used for waive, "to give something up," perhaps because it fits well with the image of someone waving something away. But when you waive your rights, or salary, or contract terms, you surrender them. You can think of the extra i in waive as a little surrender flag in the middle of the word.

16. INTENSIVE PURPOSES

Intensive is a word that means strong or extreme, but that’s not what’s called for in this phrase.  To say “practically speaking” or “in all important ways” the phrase you want is “for all intents and purposes.”

17. GAUNTLET/GAMUT

Run the gauntlet and run the gamut are both correct, but mean different things. Running the gauntlet was an old type of punishment where a person was struck and beaten while running between two rows of people. A gamut is a range or spectrum. When something runs the gamut, it covers the whole range of possibilities.

18. PEEK/PEAK

This pair causes the most trouble in the phrase sneak peek where the spelling from sneak bleeds over to peek, causing it to switch meaning from "a quick look" to "a high point." If you imagine the two Es as a pair of eyes, it can help you remember to use peek for the looking sense.

19. FORTUITOUS

Fortuitous means by chance or accident. Because of its similarity to fortunate, it is commonly used to refer to a lucky accident, but it need not be. Having lightning strike your house and burn it down is not a lucky event, but according to your insurance company it will be covered because it is fortuitous, or unforeseen.

20. REFUTE

To refute a claim or an argument doesn’t just mean to offer counterclaims and opposing arguments. That would be to respond or rebut. To refute is to prove that a claim is false. If you refute, the disagreement should be over because you’ve won. If someone accuses you of not having paid for something, you refute the accusation by producing the receipt.

21. INSURE/ENSURE

These words are easy to confuse not only because they sound alike, but because they both have to do with guarantees. To ensure is to make sure something does or doesn’t happen. To insure is to use a more specific type of guarantee: an insurance policy.

22. DISPERSE/DISBURSE

Disperse is more common and has a wider range of meaning than disburse. To disperse is to scatter, separate, or sprinkle around. To disburse is only to give out money.

23. FLAK/FLACK

Not many words in English end with ak, but flak does because it’s a shortening of a German word: fliegerabwehrkanone (anti-aircraft gun). Flak is artillery fire, and by metaphorical extension, criticism. The less common flack is for a publicist or someone who tries to drum up attention for a person or product.

24. ALL RIGHT/ALRIGHT

Though alright spelled as one word is beginning to be accepted by a few style guides, it is still considered an error by most. Write it as two words.

25. BATED/BAITED

The bated in the expression bated breath is related to abated. The breath is reduced, or almost held, in anticipation. It is not baited like a fish hook.

26. ILLUSION/ALLUSION

Illusion is the more common word and usually the one you want. An illusion is a false impression, something that seems real, but isn’t. Allusion is mostly used in literary contexts. It is a hint at something else, or a pointer to other work, such as a character name that refers back to a Shakespeare play.

27. FLOUNDER/FOUNDER

To flounder is to flop around clumsily, like a fish on land. It can be used metaphorically for inconsistent or unproductive behavior. That’s why it’s easy to confuse with founder, which means to sink or fail. If a business is floundering, there’s still a chance to turn things around, but if it’s foundering, it’s best to cut your losses.

28. HEAR, HEAR/HERE, HERE

When you want to give enthusiastic approval, the correct expression is “Hear, hear!” It came from the sense of hear him out! or hear this! and not from a sense having to do with here, the present location. Here, here! is an answer to “Where should I put this cupcake?”

29. AMUSED/BEMUSED

It’s better to be amused than bemused. Amused means entertained, while bemused means puzzled or confused. It’s the difference between a smile and a head scratch.

30. HEARTY/HARDY

Hearty is for things that are warm and nourishing, like a robust welcome or an abundant feast. They have heart. Hardy is for things that are tough and durable, that can stand up to the elements and survive. They are hard.

31. DEEP-SEATED/DEEP-SEEDED

Whether you're talking about fears, habits, or emotions, the correct term is deep-seated. Talk of depth and rootedness brings the idea of planting to mind, but seeds don’t enter into this expression.

32. COMPLIMENT/COMPLEMENT

A compliment is a kind or flattering comment. Complement means to go together well. Your shoes may complement your dress, but if I remark on how sharp you look I am giving you a compliment.

33. HOARD/HORDE

To hoard is to collect and keep things in a secure or hidden place, and hoard itself keeps its stash of vowels all tucked away inside the word. A horde is a big crowd. Its vowels are scattered over the word, like a horde of tourists on a sidewalk.

34. WHO’S/WHOSE

If you can substitute in “who is” or “who has,” then the one you want is who’s, otherwise it’s whose.

35. PERPETRATE/PERPETUATE

They only differ by one letter, but perpetuate gets a whole extra syllable. That works well, because perpetuate means to keep something going (to make it perpetual) while perpetrate is to commit a single act, usually a crime.

36. PORE OVER/POUR OVER

When you study a document carefully, you pore over it (almost as if you are inspecting its tiny pores). If you were to pour something over it, like juice or coffee, that would make it much harder to read.

37. CONSCIENCE/CONSCIOUS

Conscience is a noun, and conscious is an adjective. A conscience can be cleared, or keep you awake at night, or tell you what decision to make. Conscious is a description of a state. If you’re conscious you're awake and aware.

38. ANGST/ENNUI/WELTSCHMERZ

Here you go.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

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