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10 Words With Difficult-to-Remember Meanings

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Sometimes there are words that you've seen, read, and maybe even used in conversation whose meaning you can never keep straight. Even after looking it up, the right definition doesn't stick. From our friends at Vocabulary.com, here are 10 words with definitions that can be difficult to remember. Some look like they have a negative element in them, but either because their positive counterpoint has fallen out of use or because it never existed in the first place, the word doesn't really have a negative sense. Other words below are often confused for their opposite or have come to have connotations not quite reflected in their dictionary definitions.

1. NONPLUSSED

filled with bewilderment

If it looks like there's a negative at the beginning of this word, it's because etymologically speaking, there is—it's from Latin non plus, "no more, no further." Still, there is no word plussed, and that can get confusing.

2. INCHOATE

only partly in existence; imperfectly formed

It may look like the in- at the start of this word would be the same as the one at the start of words like incomplete or inadequate. Although that may be a good way to remember it, the first letters of this word are not a negative. The word comes from Latin inchoare, which meant "to begin." Inchoate things are often just beginning.

3. and 4. CACHET and PANACHE

an indication of approved or superior status;

distinctive and stylish elegance

Shades of meaning between cachet and panache are often confused. Cachet is more about prestige, and panache is more about style. Having high tea at Buckingham Palace can have a lot of cachet in your social circle, but the genteel way you sip your tea can have a lot of panache.

5. INDEFATIGABLE

showing sustained enthusiastic action with unflagging vitality

In Latin, it was possible to defatigare or "to tire out," but only the negative version prefixed with in- survived the journey into English (via French). Indefatigable is a word you almost have to say quickly, and if you get through all those syllables, it's almost as if you've proven the definition: it takes "unflagging vitality" to reach the end.

6. UNCANNY

surpassing the ordinary or normal

The word canny is rare but not unknown as a word that means "cunning" or "sly." The only problem is that that's not the meaning of canny contained in uncanny. Canny used to mean "knowing and careful," and therefore uncanny meant "mischievous," coming to refer to supernatural spirits who toyed with mortals. Comic book fans have a huge head start with this word, having grown up with the "Uncanny X-Men," who all have supernatural powers.

7. UNABASHED

not embarrassed

This word is one where the positive version did exist but has fallen out of use. Abash meant "perplex, embarrass, lose one's composure" in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, so unabashed means "not embarrassed."

8. DILATORY

wasting time

This word is confusing because it sounds like it's potentially related to words like dilate or even depilatory. It's not related to either of those words, but luckily there are ways to remember what dilatory actually means—the word almost sounds like delay or dilly dally, both of which relate to the word's definition.

9. MARTINET

someone who demands exact conformity to rules and forms

This word looks and sounds like marionette, the stringed puppet, which is a pitfall to avoid, because it can lead you to believe that martinet means the exact opposite of what it actually means. A martinet has some power, and no one is pulling their strings.

10. HOI POLLOI

the common people generally

This is confusing because it's an obscure word for the common folk, and sometimes it's hard to keep straight whether the upper or lower crust is being discussed. Hoi polloi literally means "the many," with polloi being the plural of the well-known Greek prefix poly.

To see more words with difficult-to-remember meanings, and to add them to your vocabulary-learning program, see the full list at Vocabulary.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do We Call People Blamed for Things 'Scapegoats'?
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From Marie Antoinette to the cow that reportedly caused the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, history is filled with figures who were single-handedly—yet often undeservedly—held responsible for epic societal failures or misdeeds. In other words, they became scapegoats. But what did goats (who are actually pretty awesome creatures) do to deserve association with this blameworthy bunch?

The word scapegoat was first coined by English Protestant scholar William Tyndale in his 1530 English translation of the Bible, according to David Dawson’s 2013 book Flesh Becomes Word: A Lexicography of the Scapegoat Or, the History of an Idea. Tyndale, who was deciphering Hebrew descriptions of Yom Kippur rituals from the Book of Leviticus, recounted a ceremony in which one of two goats was selected by lot. A high priest would place his hands on the goat’s head and confess his people's sins— thus transferring them to the animal—before casting it out into the wilderness to rid Israel of its transgressions. As for the other goat, it would be sacrificed to the Lord.

Tyndale coined the word scapegoat to describe the sin-bearing creature, interpreting the Hebrew word azazel or Azazel as ez ozel, or "the goat that departs or escapes." That said, some scholars have disagreed with his interpretation, claiming that Azazel actually stands for the name of a goat-like wilderness demon, whom the offering was meant for, or a specific location in the desert to where sins were banished, often thought to be a mountainous cliff from which the scapegoat was cast off and killed.

Over the centuries, the word scapegoat became disassociated with its Biblical meaning, and it eventually became used as a metaphor to describe a person who shoulders the blame of any wrongdoing. Now that you know the word's etymology, remember the poor animals that inspired it, and maybe resolve to go a little easier on the next person who ends up having to take the fall for everyone else's mistakes.

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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Neighborhoods
How 8 Twin Cities Neighborhoods Got Their Names
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Poetry, frogs, and … murder? Neighborhoods in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota were named after all three. Read on for the stories behind some of the Twin Cities’ many neighborhood names.

1. LONGFELLOW, MINNEAPOLIS

If the name rings a bookish bell, it should: The neighborhood was named after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the 19th century author who penned beloved poems such as The Song of Hiawatha. There is also the Longfellow Community, which includes the Longfellow neighborhood and several other smaller neighborhoods too, all of which have Victorian-era connotations. Howe was named after Julia Ward Howe, whose 1862 “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is one of the United States’ most beloved patriotic songs. Cooper was ultimately named after James Fenimore Cooper, the novelist best known for The Last of the Mohicans. Seward bears the name of William Seward, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State. And Hiawatha shares its name with Longfellow’s famous poem, which in part tells the tragic story of an Ojibwe warrior and his love for a Dakota woman, Minnehaha. That name might ring a bell, too: It’s been bestowed on countless things in the region, including another Minneapolis neighborhood.

2. FROGTOWN, ST. PAUL

Frogtown has a more official-sounding name: Thomas-Dale. But the neighborhood has been known by an amphibian moniker for years. Nobody’s completely sure why. Theories range from a 19th-century bishop nicknaming the marshy area after its chorus of frogs to a German nickname for the croakers. Others suspect the word “frog” was meant as an ethnic slur to describe the area’s French residents [PDF] or that it was derived from a common nickname for the tool that’s used to switch railroad cars from track to track (the area was once home to two rail yards). It may never be clear which is true, but the neighborhood was built near swampy wetland—which could explain the ribbity label.

3. POWDERHORN PARK, MINNEAPOLIS

What sounds like a potentially violent place name is anything but. Instead, Powderhorn Park got its name from something that gives Minnesota its reputation as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”—a body of water. It’s just 12 acres, but Powderhorn Lake once bore a resemblance to the gunpowder containers toted by people in the days before paper (and later metallic) cartridges. (Modern cartridges hold bullets, gunpowder, and a primer; back then, the gun was primed by hand after pouring the gunpowder in.) The funnel-like device is now obsolete and once the lake became part of a municipal park, it lost its original looks. Still, the name remains, as does the grand Minnesota tradition of lake pride.

4. COMO PARK, ST. PAUL

That pride isn’t always well-founded—despite their majestic-sounding names, many of Minnesota’s lakes are, well, not so majestic. St. Paul’s Como Park neighborhood got its name from Lake Como, which conjures up visions of the dramatic subalpine lake it’s named after. But even though the St. Paul lake is no pond, it’s not exactly as scenic as something you’d find in Italy. If the legend is to be believed, that didn’t concern the lake’s first white settler, a Swiss immigrant named Charles Perry, all that much, and he renamed the lake—known by the uninspiring name Sandy Lake—after the Alps he loved. However, there’s a competing and more likely theory. The lake might have been named not by Perry, but by a land speculator named Henry McKenty who profited from the Alpine association. Well, kind of: As the Park Bugle’s Roger Bergerson notes, McKenty lost everything in the Panic of 1857 and moved on, presumably to give dramatic monikers to other bodies of water.

5. HOLLAND, MINNEAPOLIS

You might assume that a neighborhood called Holland was named after its Dutch residents. In this case, you’d be wrong: Holland was named after a 19th century novelist named Josiah Gilbert Holland. Holland helped found Scribner’s Monthly, one of the most influential publications of its day. He was well known during his heyday, but not under his own name. Rather, he often published under the pseudonym “Timothy Titcomb.” In books like Titcomb’s Letters to Young People, Single and Married, Holland gave advice on everything from etiquette to romance. “Never content yourself with the idea of having a common-place wife,” he urged his male readers. “You want one who will stimulate you, stir you up, keep you moving, show you your weak points, and make something of you.”

6. DAYTON’S BLUFF, ST. PAUL

Lyman Dayton, the land speculator after whom Dayton’s Bluff is named, found a wife. But all too soon, she became a widow. Described as “an energetic, stirring, liberal, kind-hearted man,” Dayton came to Minnesota from New England and decided to buy up land east of St. Paul in the hopes of making his fortune. No matter that a large ravine separated his land from the city. His gamble ended up making sense for homeowners, who built their houses on top of the neighborhood’s rolling hills. Early residents were rich Germans who made the most of their views. But Dayton’s triumph didn’t last long: He was in poor health and died at just 55 years of age. His widow and only son ended up living in a nearby town that, appropriately, bore their last name. Today, Dayton, Minnesota is home to about 4600 residents.

7. BELTRAMI, MINNEAPOLIS

Many of Minneapolis’s neighborhoods bear the names of the developers who created them. Not so Beltrami. It’s named after Giacomo Beltrami, an Italian explorer and jurist who discovered the headwaters of the Mississippi. Or so he claimed. The restless Italian loved the Mississippi River and set out to discover where it came from. When he made it to the lake he named Lake Julia in 1823, he figured that was its source and spread the news far and wide. Of course, he was wrong: The mighty river’s head is actually at Lake Itasca in north central Minnesota. Apparently Beltrami’s claim was taken with a grain of salt, even though the true source wasn’t identified until 1832. Beltrami eventually went back to Europe, but he’s still commemorated in Minnesota for his exploration and his dramatic accounts of the area.

8. PAYNE-PHALEN, ST. PAUL

Beltrami was dramatic, but the story of Edward Phelan (or Phalen), after whom a lake from which the Payne-Phalen neighborhood drew its moniker was partially named, makes the explorer’s life seem tepid. Phelan, an Irishman, was one of St. Paul’s first residents—and possibly its first murderer.

After being discharged from the U.S. Army at nearby Fort Snelling, he arrived in the St. Paul area, which had only recently been opened for settlement. That meant he had first dibs on land that few had even seen yet. However, Phelan’s empty pocketbook meant he had to join forces with a sergeant, John Hays, to buy up the land he wanted—a prime slice of real estate in what is now downtown St. Paul. Phelan, who was known for his temper, started farming with Hays. But then Hays disappeared—and when his mutilated body was found near a local cave, Phelan was the prime suspect [PDF]. Neighbors all contradicted Phelan’s version of the story, which was that Native Americans had attacked his former business partner. Phalen was found not guilty, but in the time the trial took Hay’s claim had been jumped, and since all of his neighbors felt he was guilty, Phalen moved away. Eventually he himself would be murdered on his way to finding fortune in California. Despite the distasteful associations, his name ended up on several St. Paul landmarks, including Lake Phalen, after which the neighborhood is named. As for Hays, his name has faded from memory—and as MPR News’ Tracy Mumford notes, it’s not even certain where his bones were buried.

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