Written Rambles10 Words That You've Probably Been MisusingTyler Vendetti

There are so many words in the English language that it’s not surprising that the definitions for some of them have gotten mixed up over the years. It’s possible that you’ve gone your entire life without realizing your mistakes. I’m sure people have noticed. One day, you were probably walking down the street, casually chatting with an old friend, and one of these words slipped out of your mouth. Before you can move on to your story about how Mufasa would actually make a very attractive human, your friend stops to correct your error, and suddenly, your whole life starts to feel like one giant lie. How long have you been using that word incorrectly, you wonder? How many angry Facebook rants have you ruined with your improper grammar? While I can’t give you an answer to those questions, I can at least provide you with a list of other tricky words so that you may never have to suffer from this embarrassment ever again:

1) Travesty

What you may think it means: a tragedy, an unfortunate event

What it actually means: a mockery; a parody

This one, I’ll admit, is my own personal error. For the longest time, I equated travesty with tragedy, mostly because in passing, they sound like the same word. It’s stupid, I know, but if you knew how many times I confused fetal position with beetle position, you wouldn’t be laughing. It’s a serious problem.

2) Ironic

What you may think it means: a funny coincidence

What it actually means: contrary to what you might expect

It’s not ironic that you bumped into a talking turtle in a sweater vest right after you told your friend how cool it would be to bump into a talking turtle in a sweater vest. It’s a coincidence, and believe it or not, those two words are not related. Also, you should probably lay off the drugs because I’m pretty sure animals shouldn’t be talking.

3) Peruse

What you may think it means: to skim or glance over something

What it actually means: to review something carefully/in-depth

How this definition got completely turned on its head, I’ll never know, but I’ll be sure never to say “I’m going to go peruse my math textbook” ever again, just in case someone overhears and tries to hold me to it under the real meaning.

4) Bemused

What you may think it means: amused

What it actually means: confused

Again, with the whole “words sounding alike” issue. I’m starting to think I just need hearing aids. This is getting out of hand.

5) Compelled

What you may think it means: to willingly do something, to feel like you need to do something

What it actually means: to be forced to do something (willingly or unwillingly)

The word you’re looking for is “impelled.” I agree, it doesn’t get enough attention.

6) Nauseous

What you may think it means: to feel sick

What it actually means: to cause nausea

When you eat too much ice cream and declare to your mom or the nearest adult, “I feel nauseous,” what you’re actually saying is that you are causing people around you to feel sick. Thanks, jerk. (For the record, “I’m nauseated” is the way to go.)

7) Conversate

What you may think it means: to hold a conversation

What it actually means: ABSOLUTELY NOTHING

This word is a mix of conversation and converse, and doesn’t actually exist, like unicorns or YOUR DREAMS. (I’m kidding. Unicorns are totally real.)

8) Redundant

What you may think it means: repetitive

What it actually means: superfluous, able to be cut out

“Including this sentence is redundant because you already mentioned your love of Santa Claus in the previous paragraph.” This has always been my exposure to the word redundant, so it only makes sense that I would think repetitive was correct. I can’t be the only one? Right? RIGHT?

9) Enormity

What you may think it means: enormousness

What it actually means: extreme evil

I don’t know where the “extreme evil” thing came from (probably the Devil) but enormity makes more sense as enormousness in my mind.

10) Terrific

What you may think it means: awesome, fantastic

What it actually means: causing terror

Okay, so “causing terror” is more of an outdated definition but I still thought it was interesting. Maybe keep this fun fact in the back of your mind the next time you call your favorite camper, “Terrific Tommy,” because technically, a few decades ago, that might have been an insult. Unless instead of a camper, he’s a serial killer. In that case, go for it.

Info via DailyWritingTips.com, Cracked.com, and WriteItSideways.comImage via GinnyTonkin.com.


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  1. Add “weary” to the list. People use it to mean “leery” or “wary”.

  2. Um, I started having trouble at about number 3, then 4,6,8,9 and 10 which I have always known means terror not fantastic but like a lemming I used it the same way everyone else did or does. I’m gonna start using the beetle position though because it is so cute.

  3. This is a great piece. Would you mind terribly if I printed it out and gave it to my high school sophomores?

  4. this is a great post. i think your definition of what enormity means is misses the point. both enormous and enormity are NOT NORMAL in a BIG way, as so many have pointed out but the distinction is important. enormity does describe the large scale or extreme intensity of something but only something that is bad or immoral. good or neutral things, no matter how big, are better described as enormous. otherwise we get this:

    her vicious kindness and scathing acceptance of others contributed to the enormity of her good deeds.

    using enormity correctly is more important than all the brouhaha regarding ironic. i always think of the quiet librarian by day and sex kitten at night as good irony. it isn’t about coincidence but it could be funny. in fact, if it isn’t at least slightly amusing it isn’t ironic.

    i knew penultimate was next to last. that means ultimate is the last. being the last isn’t so great “in the race” or “picked for a team”. i guess it has more to do with latest (most recent or up-to-date) than last.. so this year’s phone or car is the ultimate and last years is the penultimate.

    repetition is not necessarily redundant though it can make something redundant. redundancy isn’t always a bad thing. the central nervous system is filled with redundancies. in the same way you back-up or duplicate your hard drive is redundant and a good idea.

  5. confabulate is what most mean when they say conversate. is it ironic that the real word sounds more like a made-up word than the made-up word does? or is it just a funny coincidence? it’s not terribly funny though.

  6. Fun and interesting.

  7. One thing I like about the English language is its fluidity. Some words have more than one meaning. As society changes, we assign new meanings to words. Ironically, the more often a word is used incorrectly, the more likely the incorrect definition becomes one of the correct definitions. Beware of simply reading the first definition of a word in the dictionary.

  8. Why do I feel that “inconceivable” should have been on this list?

  9. I looked up all these words. For the most part, this is correct. Many of the words have deeper and other possible meanings. Here are some errors:

    Nauseous – one meaning is “affected with nausea; nauseated: ‘to feel nauseous.’”

    Conversate – nonstandard except in some dialects; means “to have a conversation; converse; talk.”

    Enormity – the third meaning is “greatness of size, scope, extent, or influence; immensity: “The enormity of such an act of generosity is staggering.”

    Terrific – the article did point out that “terrifying” is an outdated meaning. It’s also the last of three meanings listing in dictionary.com. The other two are “extraordinarily great or intense” and “extremely good; wonderful.”

  10. I’d never heard ‘conversate’, (which sounds like a ‘Bushism’) or many of these complaints until I read these comments. Being Canadian, I recognise the differences between British and American usage, and reserve the right to use both inconsistently as hell. On this side of the pond, many words are losing strength, but in the U.K., words seem to gain it. ‘F-bombs’ are being dropped at a phenomenal rate, and will soon be acceptable in kindergarten here. But then, how the hell did ‘fanny’ become ‘vagina’? It used to be a feminine name! And what do Brits call the process of stuffing a turkey, or goose, now? It strikes me that a well-bred English lady would be unable to read a Canadian or American cook book. She’d be horrified at all the ‘Stuffed This-or-That’ recipes.
    Oooh, one more pet peeve! The plural of process is ‘pro-sess-ez’, not ‘praw-sess-eez’. Where did that come from?

  11. As pointed out a couple of times here, the recorded historical use of ‘nauseous’ to mean ‘inclined to nausea’ somewhat predates its use to mean ‘causing nausea’;
    so if the earlier use became obsolete (if it ever has) – but has come back into common use – how does that make it wrong? When do we draw this “can’t change it now” line? (can’t change it back!)
    Just for interest, the root of the word is from ‘naus’, Greek for ‘ship’, the same root as for ‘nautical’ and ‘navy’. The word originally meant ‘sea-sickness’.
    [Hmmm - the 'ous' suffix means 'full of' - so does 'nauseous' actually mean 'full of ships' - that would not feel nice.]

    Before we looked up ‘nausea’, my daughter and I thought about the word ‘curious’, wondering if it might be basically the same situation: meaning causing ‘curiousity’ (some of her friends are very curious). The etymology of ‘curious’ is even harder to follow:
    “About 1340 ‘curiouse’: ‘eager to know’, ‘inquisitive’, borrowed from Old French ‘curios’ …. from Latin ‘curiosus’: full of care”,
    from Latin ‘cura’ : care, concern, attention, management; it is the same root word as for ‘cure’. (All of the above from Chambers Dictionary of Etymoloogy 1988).
    Nobody seems to know for sure how it made the leap from ‘care’ to ‘inquisitive’, and then ‘singular’, ‘odd’, ‘queer’. Perhaps from occult cures (early medicine)?
    Curiouser and curiouser! Isn’t language fascinating? [A 'root' by the way is really a part of plant. Who knew?]

    And then, diverging somewhat, if a chair is “comfortable” why can you not comfort it?
    I enjoyed this article. Love words. Let’s all keep thinking!
    [Please don't criticize my punctuation - I love my punctuation (you should see me really get going with brackets {really!}).]

    • Oops – got to correct my own punctuation though, (& spelling apparently), that should read:-
      basically the same situation: meaning ‘causing curiosity’

      And apparently even the OED spells it ‘curiosity’ (but what about all those words
      you Americans leave out the ‘u’ in, and we don’t?)
      And the title of the book is of course not ‘Etymoloogy’ – a typo.
      I am going to comfort my chair now!

  12. Terrific  

    ter·rif·ic [tuh-rif-ik] adjective
    1. extraordinarily great or intense: terrific speed.
    2. extremely good; wonderful: a terrific vacation.
    3. causing terror; terrifying.

  13. 1, 4, 5 and 8 must be peculier to American English because no Brit, Irish, Aussie or New Zealander would make those errors.

    1. The most common use of the word travesty is the term “travesty of justice”, which refers to an innocent person being sentenced or an obviously guilty person getting off scott-free. It is derived from the French word “travestie”, which translates into English as both “travesty” and “transvestite”, so be careful using it in the presence of French people!

    4. Many times a Brit might ask “Why are you sitting there with that bemused look on your face” if you appear to be in deep concentration as though you are trying to understand something…

    5. “It’s was against my better judgement but I felt compelled to say something…” – we Brits love to gossip as much as the anyone else, but sometimes we pretend to be more respectfully aloof and this is our perfect get-out clause!!

    8. In proper English, if a company loses a contract or for any other reason needs to lay off some staff, this is called “a round of redundancies”. If you are one of the unlucky ones, you will be “made redundant”, and depending on your length of service you should be entitled to some “redundancy pay” to help you along whilst you find another job. Americans would just say that you were fired, but the British only use “fired” (or more commonly “sacked”) if an individual loses their job through their own neglect, negligence or other unacceptable behaviour, if you lose your job for reasons beyond your control, you become redundant.

    • Regarding #8, what you refer to as ‘redundancy pay’ would be called ‘severance pay’ in the U.S. , both apparently related to the act of cutting. Hopefully it (the pay, not the cutting) is more prevalent outside the U.S. because, unless you’re some sort of executive here, you’d be lucky to leave with anything more than a bootprint on your arse.

    • A common American term for ‘losing one’s job through a decision of management not based on personal performance or professional malfeasance’ is ‘laid off’. Generally speaking, someone who is laid off does not suffer the social stigma of being fired; it is recognized that such circumstances are generally simple poor fortune, or a sign of a poorly managed company being forced to compensate for its poor management.

  14. To say that peruse means to look into something in depth is also an outdated definition. My English teacher had an entire lesson on the subject.
    Using the word to mean to briefly browse something is perfectly suitable and is correct.

  15. Wouldn’t it still be ironic to bump into a talking turtle in a sweater vest right after you told your friend how cool it would be to bump into a talking turtle in a sweater vest if you expected that to not happen right after the telling? But if you totally expected it, then it wouldn’t be ironic anymore.

  16. I’m reminded of a non-word that became a word to avoid definition errors. The word is flammable. Its original use was to avoid the confusion that the real word inflammable caused. Inflammable does not mean flame-proof, that word would be nonflammable. Inflammable means it WILL catch fire.

  17. Where are you getting these definitions from? Some are basically right, but not entirely…Especially “enormity.” It does not, in fact, mean “extreme evil.” It is used to describe the size or extent of something. i.e: “the enormity of her arrogance”

    • i think the distinction is fairly important. enormity and enormous both mean NOT NORMAL in a BIG way. but enormity is always bad or immoral. use enormous for the size of an object or an action that’s neutral or good.

      the enormity of death and destruction caused by the enormous staypuft marshmellow man was appalling.

  18. This leaves the door wide open to a healthy rant..

    Thank you for including ‘conversate’. Next, would you hit ‘orientate’ and then, I think an entire blog entry might be devoted to the migration of ‘begging the question’ which now in common usage means exactly the opposite of its original definition.

    Where does that leave me? I have to figure out how orientated the individual is with whom I might be conversating so I can decide what the heck s/he means. In both senses of the word, this entry is terrific.

  19. Asking questions are actually pleasant thing if you are not understanding anything totally, except this post gives pleasant
    understanding even.

  20. burning non-flammable foods… =D you’re very cute.