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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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language
How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages
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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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Big Questions
What’s the Difference Between a Gift and a Present?
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It’s that time again when we’re busy buying, wrapping, and giving them. Sometimes we call them gifts, sometimes presents. Is there a difference?

The words come to us from different language families. Gift comes from the old Germanic root for “to give.” It referred to an act of giving, and then, to the thing being given. In Old English it meant the dowry given to a bride’s parents. Present comes from the French for "to present." A present is the thing presented or bestowed. They were both in use for the idea of something undergoing a transfer of possession without expectation of payment from the 13th century onward.

The words gift and present are well-matched synonyms that mean essentially the same thing, but even well-matched synonyms have their own connotations and distinctive patterns of use. Gift applies to a wider range of situations. Gifts can be talents. You can have the gift of gab, or a musical gift. Gifts can be intangibles. There is the gift of understanding or the gift of a quiet day. We generally don’t use present for things like this. Presents are more concrete. A bit more, well, present. If your whole family gave donations to your college fund for your birthday would you say “I got a lot of presents”? It doesn’t exactly sound wrong, but since you never hold these donations in your hand, gifts seems to fit better.

Gift can also be an attributive noun, acting like an adjective to modify another noun. What do you call the type of shop where you can buy presents for people? A gift shop. What do you call the basket of presents that you can have sent to all your employees? A gift basket. Present doesn’t work well in this role of describing other nouns. We have gift boxes, gift cards, and gift wrap, not present boxes, present cards, and present wrap.

Gift appears to be more frequent than present, though it is difficult to get accurate counts, because if you compare occurrences of the noun present with the noun gift, you include that other noun present, meaning the here and now. However, the plural noun presents captures only the word we want. Gifts outnumbers presents in the Corpus of Contemporary American English by four to one.

Still, according to my personal sense of the words, present—though it may not be as common—is more casual sounding than gift. I expect a child to ask Santa for lots and lots of presents, not many, many gifts. But whether it’s gifts or presents you prefer, I wish you many and lots this year, of both the tangible and intangible kind.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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