Words That Don't Mean What You Think They Mean

Dreamstime

Words that don’t mean what you think they mean from Words That Don't Mean What You Think They Mean [Gallery]

Words That Don't Mean What You Think They Mean [Gallery]

Words that don’t mean what you think they mean

Words that don’t mean what you think they mean

Dreamstime

Before you decide to learn some new five-dollar words, make sure you’re using these 29 commonly misused words correctly.

1. Alibi

1. Alibi

Dreamstime

While it’s commonly used as a synonym for “excuse,” an alibi strictly refers to proof that one was elsewhere while a criminal offense was taking place. So leave the alibis to “Law & Order,” and stick to an explanation for why you missed your friend’s birthday dinner.

2. Alternatives

2. Alternatives

Dreamstime

The word alternative comes from the Latin root alter, which means “other (of two).” Though modern English has accepted “alternatives” to mean one of two or more available possibilities, purists believe it strictly applies to two, and when there are more than two possibilities, you should use “choices” rather than “alternatives.”

3. Anticipate

3. Anticipate

Dreamstime

Based on its Latin roots, to anticipate technically means “to act in advance” according to Oxford English Dictionaries. This differs a bit from how it’s currently used to mean “to look forward to” or “expect,” because anticipate implies preparation or action has been taken.

4. Bemused

4. Bemused

Dreamstime

Many people mistakenly think bemused means “mildly amused” because of the words’ similar sounds, but it’s actually quite the opposite. Bemused means bewildered or confused. It can also mean sarcastic or mocking amusement at something that is surprising or perplexing.

5. Cliché

5. Cliché

Dreamstime

Cliché, borrowed from French, means an overused or unoriginal theme, characterization, or situation. Most folks get that right, but cliché is actually a noun and not an adjective. Although more dictionaries have recognized that cliché is commonly used as adjective, the adjective form is clichéd.

6. Conversate

6. Conversate

Dreamstime

This nonexistent word is incorrectly used for “converse,” meaning to talk. The word seems to be mistakenly formed by people taking the base of the word “conversation.” The nonstandard word first began popping up in the South and is notably used in many rap and hip-hop lyrics.

7. Crescendo

7. Crescendo

Dreamstime

A crescendo is a gradual increase in volume of a musical passage, so it’s not quite the same as the climax itself. Thus, saying “rise to a crescendo” is redundant.

8. Decimate

8. Decimate

Dreamstime

The word decimate is commonly used to mean destroy a large portion of something, but that’s not actually what the word means. The prefix “deci” means one-tenth, so to “decimate” actually means to kill every tenth man in a regiment or to take or tax 10 percent from someone. One-tenth is still a lot, but it's certainly not a majority.

9. Disinterested

9. Disinterested

Dreamstime

Prefixes have power, and though they’re both negatives, “dis” and “un” developed different meanings when put in front of “interested.” Disinterested is used to mean unbiased or “free from selfish motive or interest,” while uninterested means not engaged or bored.

10. Electrocuted

10. Electrocuted

Dreamstime

If electricity shocks you when plugging in a faulty appliance, you haven’t been electrocuted. To be electrocuted means to be killed by electric shock because it combines “electric” and “execution,” or death. However, the word has evolved to informally mean any injury by getting an electric shock because there is no better English word to fill the void.

11. Factoid

11. Factoid

Dreamstime

A factoid isn’t a bite-size fun fact. The word was actually coined in 1973 by author Norman Mailer, who made up the word to mean "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." “Factoid” literally means “fact-like” without being a “fact.” You could say a factoid is similar to an “alternative fact.”

12. Gourmand

12. Gourmand

Dreamstime

Make sure you’re not insulting someone by calling them a “gourmand” when you mean “gourmet.” A gourmand is someone who is excessively fond of eating and drinking, almost to the point of gluttony. A gourmet is a connoisseur of food and drink without the negative implications.

13. Humbled

13. Humbled

Leah Klafczynski/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS

Pro athletes in particular seem to misuse this word to mean that they feel humble after a big win. But there’s a big difference between “being humble” and “being humbled.” To be humbled is to be decisively defeated and brought down a peg or two.

14. Ironic

14. Ironic

Malicia/ABACAPRESS.COM

Alanis Morissette isn’t the only person to struggle with the concept of irony. Morissette famously missed what it means to be “ironic” in her hit song of the same name, but many people often incorrectly use it to mean an amusing coincidence. But irony specifically means “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result.” So if it rains on your wedding day, per Morissette’s lyrics, that’s unfortunate, not ironic.

15. Irregardless

15. Irregardless

Dreamstime

This is made-up word that people mistakenly say when they mean “regardless.” Regardless is defined as heedless and careless. It doesn’t require a prefix to attain this meaning.

16. Nauseous

16. Nauseous

Dreamstime

This one has been misused so often that dictionaries now include its once incorrect usage. Nauseous originally meant something that caused nausea, for example a nauseous smell. If you mean you feel sick, you should say you’re nauseated.

17. Nonplussed

17. Nonplussed

Dreamstime

Perhaps because of its similarity to “fuss,” many wrongly infer that nonplussed means not worried or unphased. It actually signifies the opposite. Nonplussed is defined as “a state of bafflement or perplexity” or “at a loss as to what to say, think, or do.”

18. Peruse

18. Peruse

Dreamstime

Peruse isn’t just a five-dollar synonym for “read.” It originally meant “to examine or consider with attention and in detail,” then strangely evolved to also mean the opposite: “Casually looking at or reading something.” So next time you want to sound fancy by using “peruse,” make sure your meaning is clear with modifiers, such as “quickly perused.” Or just avoid the word altogether!

19. Poisonous

19. Poisonous

Dreamstime

Technically, there’s no such thing as a poisonous snake. Poisonous means “producing a toxic substance that causes injury or death when absorbed or ingested.” So mushrooms can be poisonous, but snakes or other animals are venomous, as they produce venom that is capable of inflicting injury or death.

20. Pristine

20. Pristine

Dreamstime

People often incorrectly use the word “pristine” when they mean fresh and clean. But your bedroom, your laundered shirt or your 5-year-old car shouldn’t be called pristine. That’s because the word means untouched, unused or uncorrupted by civilization.

21. Prolific

21. Prolific

Dreamstime

Prolific literally means “productive of offspring” but has evolved to describe someone who is figuratively fruitful or “marked by abundant inventiveness or productivity.” This can aptly be used to describe writers, composers, artists, architects, etc., who produce a large quantity of work. Unfortunately, this word is regularly misused in the sports world to describe athletes who play multiple sports, who play frequently or who are well-known. A “prolific athlete” makes no sense unless you say what they’re prolific at, such as “a prolific hitter.”

22. Seldomly

22. Seldomly

Dreamstime

The word “seldom” is already an adverb. Seldomly, while a real word, is archaic and considered incorrect because it’s completely unnecessary. So if you want to seldom get corrected, stop using “seldomly.”

23. Terrific

23. Terrific

Dreamstime

While it’s come to take on the meaning of “great” or “fantastic,” terrific originally meant something quite different. Terrific is supposed to mean frightful and terrifying, something that inspires terror.

24. Titled

24. Titled

Dreamstime

A book or movie is technically “entitled” something, not titled. Entitled has multiple meanings, which is perhaps why modern folks are tempted to use “titled” to make their meaning clear. Entitled means “to give someone the right to do or have something,” such as “her ticket entitled her to free admission.” It also means feeling that you have a right to something based solely on who you are rather than worth or merit. But it ultimately means to name or call something, in other words, give it a title. “Titled,” on the other hand, strictly means a person who has a noble title.

25. Transpire

25. Transpire

Dreamstime

Transpire might be used in lieu of “to take place” today, but it’s origins are quite precise and scientific. The word was originally a technical term for exuding vapor from the surfaces of leaves or skin. It evolved to take on a figurative sense to mean “to escape from secrecy, or to become known.”

26. Travesty

26. Travesty

Dreamstime

They might sound the same, but “travesty” and “tragedy” aren’t synonymous. A travesty is an absurd, comic or grotesque imitation, so a ruling that’s a gross miscarriage of justice could be described as a “travesty of justice,” but a forest fire or a brutal crime aren’t travesties.

27. Ultimate

27. Ultimate

Dreamstime

Ultimate is often used to mean extreme or the best, such as in Ultimate Fighting Championship or ultimate frisbee. In actuality, its ultimate definition is “last in a progression or series.” So “the ultimate destination” isn’t the coolest place but just the final one you visit.

28. Verbal

28. Verbal

Dreamstime

You might think “verbal” means spoken as opposed to written. You’d be wrong. Verbal means “of, relating to, or consisting of words,” rather than abstract meanings or ideas. That’s why “verbal sections” of tests aren’t actually done out loud.

29. Wizened

29. Wizened

Dreamstime

“Wizened” sounds like “wise,” but calling your grandmother wizened isn’t a good idea. It doesn’t mean someone has the deep understanding of life that comes from age. Rather, it means “dry, shrunken, and wrinkled often as a result of aging.”