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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.”

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How to Craft the Perfect Comeback, According to Experts
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In a 1997 episode of Seinfeld called “The Comeback,” George Costanza is merrily stuffing himself with free shrimp at a meeting. His coworker mocks him: “Hey, George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” George stands humiliated as laughter fills the room, his mind searching frantically for the perfect riposte.

It’s only later, on the drive home, that he thinks of the comeback. But the moment has passed.

The common human experience of thinking of the perfect response too late—l’esprit de l’escalier, or "the wit of the staircase"—was identified by French philosopher Denis Diderot when he was so overwhelmed by an argument at a party that he could only think clearly again once he’d gotten to the bottom of the stairs.

We've all been there. Freestyle rappers, improv comedians, and others who rely on witty rejoinders for a living say their jobs make them better equipped to seize the opportunity for clever retorts in everyday life. They use a combination of timing, listening, and gagging their inner critics. Here are their insights for crafting the perfect comeback.

LISTEN TO YOUR OPPONENT’S ARGUMENT.

The next time you’re in a heated conversation, be less focused on what you're about to say and more attentive to what you're actually responding to. When you spend more time considering what your sparring partner is saying, “you’re deferring your response until you’ve fully heard the other person," Jim Tosone, a technology executive-turned-improv coach who developed the Improv Means Business program, tells Mental Floss. Your retorts may be more accurate, and therefore more successful, when you’re fully engaged with the other person’s thoughts.

DON’T THINK TOO MUCH.

According to Belina Raffy, the CEO of the Berlin-based company Maffick—which also uses improv skills in business—not overthinking the situation is key. “You’re taking yourself out of unfolding reality if you think too much,” she tells Mental Floss. It’s important to be in the moment, and to deliver your response to reflect that moment.

TRAIN THAT SPONTANEOUS MENTAL MUSCLE.

History’s most skilled comeback artists stored witticisms away for later use, and were able to pull them out of their memory at the critical time.

Winston Churchill was known for his comebacks, but Tim Riley, director and chief curator at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, tells Mental Floss that many of his burns were borrowed. One of his most famous lines was in response to politician Bessie Braddock’s jab, “Sir, you are drunk.” The prime minister replied, “And you, Bessie, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.”

Riley says this line was copied from comic W.C. Fields. Nevertheless, it took quick thinking to remember and reshape the quote in the moment, which is why Churchill was thought of as a master of timing. “It was an off-the-cuff recall of something he had synthesized, composed earlier, and that he was waiting to perform,” Riley says.

But in some situations, the retort must be created entirely in the moment. Training for spontaneity on stage also helps with being quicker-witted in social situations, New York City battle rap emcee iLLspokinn tells Mental Floss. It’s like working a spontaneous muscle that builds with each flex, so, you’re incrementally better each time at seizing that witty opportunity.

MUZZLE YOUR INNER CRITIC.

Anyone who has been in the audience for an improv show has seen how rapidly performers respond to every situation. Improv teaches you to release your inhibitions and say what drops into your mind: “It’s about letting go of the need to judge ourselves,” Raffy explains.

One way to break free of your internal editor might be to imagine yourself on stage. In improv theater, the funniest responses occur in the spur of the moment, says Douglas Widick, an improv performer who trained with Chicago’s Upright Citizens Brigade. By not letting one’s conscience be one’s guide, actors can give into their “deepest fantasies” and say the things they wouldn’t say in real life.

IF YOU HAVE AN EXTRA SECOND, HONE YOUR ZINGER.

The German version of Diderot’s term is Treppenwitz, also meaning the wit of the stairs. But the German phrase has evolved to mean the opposite: Something said that, in retrospect, was a bad joke. When squaring up to your rival, the high you get from spearing your opponent with a deadly verbal thrust can be shadowed by its opposite, the low that comes from blurting out a lame response that lands like a lead balloon.

That's a feeling that freestyle rapper Lex Rush hopes to avoid. “In the heat of the battle, you just go for it,” she tells Mental Floss. She likens the fight to a “stream of consciousness” that unfolds into the mic, which leaves her with little control over what she’s projecting into the crowd.

It may help to mull over your retort if you have a few extra seconds—especially if you’re the extroverted type. “Introverts may walk out of a meeting thinking, ‘Why didn’t I say that?’ while extroverts think, ‘Why did I say that?’” Tosone, the improv coach, says. Thinking before you speak, even just briefly, will help you deploy a successful comeback.

And if it doesn’t go your way, iLLspokinn advises brushing off your missed opportunity rather than dwelling on your error: “It can be toxic to hold onto it."

THROW DIGITAL SHADE ACCORDING TO THE SAME RULES—BUT BE QUICK ABOUT IT.

Texting and social media, as opposed to face-to-face contact, give you a few extra minutes to think through your responses. That could improve the quality of your zinger. “We’re still human beings, even on screens. And we prefer something that is well-stated and has a fun energy and wit about it," Scott Talan, a social media expert at American University, tells Mental Floss.

But don't wait too long: Replies lose their punch after a day or so. “Speed is integral to wit, whether in real life or screen life,” Talan says. “If you’re trying to be witty and have that reputation, then speed will help you."

Some companies have excelled in deploying savage social media burns as marketing strategies, winning viral retweets and recognition. The Wendy’s Twitter account has become so well known for its sassy replies that users often provoke it. “Bet you won’t follow me @Wendys,” a user challenged. “You won that bet,” Wendy’s immediately shot back.

George Costanza learns that lesson when he uses his rehearsed comeback at the next meeting. After his colleague repeats his shrimp insult, George stands and proudly announces, “Oh yeah? Well, the jerk store called, and they’re running out of you!”

There’s silence—until his nemesis comes back with a lethal move: “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time best-seller.”

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Dollar Words: The Logophile Game That Has Math Geeks Hooked, Too
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Besides anagrams and palindromes, if there’s one thing wordplay aficionados like to mess around with, it’s the numerical value of the letters of the alphabet. Assigning numbers to letters—A = 1, B =2, C = 3, and so on, all the way through to Z = 26—opens the alphabet up to all kinds of mathematical and numerical games and trivia.

So add the value of ARM (32) to the value of BEND (25) and you get the value of ELBOW (57). Likewise, WHITE (65) plus HOUSE (68) equals GOVERNMENT (133). HAIR (8, 1, 9, 18) is a palindrome in this A to Z number system, as is INSULINS (9, 14, 19, 21, 12, 9, 14, 19). Add up the neighboring letter pairs in CAN (3 + 1, 1 + 14), and you’ll get DO (4, 15). The letters in FOURTEEN DOZEN add up to 14 dozen (168).

One more game that can be played with the numerical values of the alphabet is to search for words that total a specific value—the holy grail of which is precisely 100. Words that total 100 in this A to Z way are affectionately known as “dollar words.” They’re actually not all that rare in English, and a full list of them includes some fairly familiar words:

ANNUALLY BOUNDARY CULTURE DRIZZLE

MITTENS MOODIEST NASTILY OUTSET

PAYPHONE PORTLAND PREVENT PRIMARY

PRINTER SESSION SOURCES STRESS

STYLES SWIMMER TATTOOED THIRTY

TOILETS TURKEY UNDRESS USELESS

WHENEVER WHISKING WHISTLES WEDNESDAY

But given a set total in mind, that raises a couple of questions: What are the shortest and the longest dollar words in the dictionary?

Because 100 is a relatively large total for a short word (and because a lot of the highest value letters at the tail end of the alphabet are hard to find homes for, like V, X, and Z) shorter dollar words are fairly hard to come by. As a result, only a handful of 5-letter dollar words have ever been discovered, including:

BUZZY NUTTY PUSSY

In fact, as proof of just how many seldom-used letters lie at the end of the alphabet, if you were to change the numbers around so that A = 26, B =25, and so on through to Z = 1, the number of five-letter dollar words increases enormously:

ABBEY ACRID BACON BASAL

BEFOG BEGET CATCH CHAIN

CHALK CHINA DODGE ELIDE

FACET HENCE IMAGE LAGAN

LANCE MAGMA MEDAL NAKED

But shortest of all are two 4-letter words: acca, an Australian slang word for an academic, and caca, a childish word for poop.

Oppositely, it can be just as difficult looking for as long a dollar word as possible; the more letters a word has, the higher its total grows. But the relatively high frequency of the letters in the first few places of the alphabet means that there are quite a few lengthy dollar words, including some with as many as 12 letters:

BACKTRACKING COMMANDEERED

DEBAUCHERIES DESEGREGATED

INAPPLICABLE NON-BREAKABLE

Apparently longest of all is the 13-letter word adiabatically, a term from meteorology and thermodynamics referring to any process that occurs without a loss or gain of heat.

But why stop at adding up? Multiplying the numerical values of words leads to some considerably larger numbers—and some considerably higher targets.

Multiply the letters of the word TYPEY together, for instance, and you’ll end up with 1,000,000 (= 20 × 25 × 16 × 5 × 25). TEETHY multiplies to 2,000,000 (= 20 × 5 × 5 × 20 × 8 × 25). And PEYOTE multiplies to 3,000,000 (= 16 × 5 × 25 × 15 × 20 × 5). No word has yet been found that totals precisely 4,000,000 or 5,000,000, but some—like LURING (4,000,752) and JUICING (5,000,940)—have come tantalizingly close.

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