Written Rambles

10 words that you've probably been misusing

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.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1586430152 Gennette Cordova

    Nauseous can mean to be affected by nausea. But thank you because I’ve definitely been using “peruse” wrong!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100005770631612 Ginger Tea

    Oh man…. “compelled” by the “ironic” “travesty” for sure…

    But whenever someone says conversate, I giggle

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=62700580 Faye Daigler

    Technically your example of redundant is both superfluous and repetitive. So, more confusion. Usually things *are* repetitive if they’re redundant, it’s just a question of if tht’s necessary. (To become redundant also can mean being laid off, at least in the UK, which I guess makes a certain amount of sense but probably is no less confusing.)

    I have definitely been using peruse wrong. Hmm.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=742284767 Kevin Thomas

      You mean you’ve been using “peruse” incorrectly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=62700580 Faye Daigler

    As a funny side note fantastic and awesome both have outdated meanings similar to terrific. Awesome should really be awe-inspiring in a sort of epic biblical sense and fantastic means literally otherworldly.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002087474820 Richard Guernsey

      Awe is the sound you make when your mouth is agape. Forth of July fireworks we say ooo and ahhhh. When we say ahhhhh we really mean aaawwwweeeee. This is the true meaning of awe. So it correct to say those fireworks were awesome.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=616609042 Tiz Cseresznye

    Redundant can also mean repetitive. :)
    “2. Needlessly wordy or repetitive in expression: ‘a student paper filled with redundant phrases.’
    3. Of or relating to linguistic redundancy.”
    (From thefreedictionary.com)

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=520573410 Chad Carteret

      I like that a variation of the word redundant was used twice in those two definitions of the word redundant.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=518969903 Michelle McTamney


      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=616609042 Tiz Cseresznye

        “b : characterized by or containing an excess; specifically : using more words than necessary
        c : characterized by similarity or repetition ” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/redundant)


    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=710815780 Douglas Hicton

      I think the word you want here is “pleonasm”.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=616609042 Tiz Cseresznye

        According to Thesaurus, they are synonyms.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1766998074 Melissa McCann

          Synonyms are not necessarily identical in meaning. For example, couch, sofa, loveseat and chaise are synonyms but describe slightly different articles of furniture.
          Redundant : In *current modern society today*, we use “terrible” to mean “really, really horrible.”
          It is repetitive in the sense that repeats three synonyms in one phrase, redundant in that sense that two of those synonyms are completely unnecessary. The reader would definitely get the point with just one.
          The final sentence in the line above is an example of repetition. It is used for emphasis and to slightly rephrase and reinforce the preceding statement.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=663371578 Kristina Ward

      The trickiness in defining ‘redundant’ here is that it is used in the same context as repetitive. Repetition isn’t always redundant – sometimes it helps to emphasis a point. It becomes redundant when it ceases to serve any point

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=717297793 Wayne Spillett

      @Tiz Cseresznye – “Needlessly wordy or repetitive” confirms the meaning as “superfluous” or “unnecessary” in this instance; in other words it is the superfluous words that are redundant, not the person saying them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=522368293 Laura Koles

    Enormity also means enormousness “in neutral use.” Seems like words are acquiring new definitions all the time due to initial misconceptions

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=567558382 Kate Sannicks-Lerner

      Yes, just like “I feel nauseous” is becoming acceptable use. But, that’s how languages evolve! It’s all good, as long as we’re understood, I think.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=812235245 Melvin Backstrom

    To some degree I appreciate the attempt, I have my prescriptivist moments myself, but linguistic pedants really need to get a life and get off their elitist high horse. The reality is words mean whatever people agree that they mean and their meanings change. I’d never use “conversate” but if people use it in mutually intelligible ways than in fact it DOES exist whether or not it’s listed in the OED or any other dictionary. Grow up and stop worrying about the inevitability of linguistic evolution. Stephen Fry put it very well: https://vimeo.com/15412319.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=607831573 Michelle Garrett

      THANK you! someone had to say it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504409549 Stephanie Amadeus

      I’m pretty sure the tone of the article is lighthearted fun. No need to bring out high horses, sociology degrees, or start burning people at the stake. Jeez.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1751904135 Noy Varua


    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1766998074 Melissa McCann

      Problem is that people have NOT agreed on new meanings for these words. The meanings remain the same and most people will notice that they don’t mean what the user thinks they mean.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1574550839 Kb Cash

    Conversate has a legitimate meaning. It means the person saying it is an ass.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=183405181 Jeremy G. Woods

      It’s actually been used as a word since the 1970’s. It is in the dictionary meaning to have a conversation. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/conversate

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=707131208 John Wheeler

        Because incorrect usage has become widespread, it still doesn’t make it a real word. The stupidity of people en masse will never equate legitimacy of ignorance. For example, the belief of a few million people that the Earth and universe are only 6,000 years old neither negates the mountains of scientific evidence to the contrary nor makes it correct simply because lots of people think it is.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=538221215 Tyler Harcus

          Actually, it being in the dictionary does make “conversate” a real word. Barely any of the words we use nowadays are spelled the way they started out, or mean what they originally meant. “Conversate” is a legitimate word because it has been used enough to be assimilated into our language, it’s how all words originate. If I say the word “fooble” means “a large rock” and everyone starts calling large rocks “foobles” eventually it becomes a word and gets added on to the language. Your comparisons are incorrect.

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=782236893 Esther Lorenz

            Yes, if it is in the dictionary, it is a real word, may be slang, but a word and can be used in playing Scrabble.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=607097631 Beth King-Mock

      LOL LOL … YES, Kb, it does!!! =D

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=733939135 Gabrielle Brunner

    I blame Alanis Morissette for #2.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=290300761 Antonia Lawrence

      -haha- I immediately thought of Alanis when I saw the word ‘ironic’.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=659304391 Wendie Tobin

      The only way I’ve been able to cope with that song is by believing that the irony exists in expecting a song about irony and then listening and finding no examples of, well, irony. Thank God for Rachael and Eliza Hurwitz’s rewrite of the original.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1404896968 Tj Siegal

      I think we could blame Alanis Morissette for just about anything. Personally, I blame her for world hunger and “You Can’t do that on Television.” I believe I’m on firm footing

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1413390035 Bethany Hawkins

    People I’m pretty sure she was being funny there is no need for the meanness.

    My English class did a sequence on word meanings. My favorite was the word mayhem. The original medieval meaning was the chopping off of arms and or legs .

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=587477829 Marlana Hobden

    I definitely got the humor in this article, and I can appreciate it for what it is. But I have to say something. While people misusing “your/you’re” or “their/there” bugs me, I have to admit even I, have occasionally used the wrong word. Usually out of being in a rush, stress, laziness. Which is why for the most part I’m over the whole “correct grammar/word” thing. This isn’t school, and we aren’t being graded. If we talk/write a certain way on a paper for a class, then we deserve the grade we get. Bad or otherwise. But as for everyday situations. I think we should be FAR MORE concerned about other things. Like the economy, mental illness, poverty, or the overall cost of a college education. Just my two cents.

    Because really, finding out some of us have misused “travesty” or “terrific” isn’t going to lower the cost of my college books, or help me figure out how to pay for my medication. :-)

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1152295113 Jonathan Brouwer

      You forgot “you’re”…..

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1152295113 Jonathan Brouwer

        Sorry. No you didn’t. You’re correct in your post….

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1416960430 Neil Pechart

    Tyler, you really need to visit any dictionary website and search these words. Something you might not know: Most words have more than one definition. Many of these other definitions show that the misuse you mention is just not so. Specifically, peruse, bemused, nauseous, redundant, enormity and terrific all have meanings that you said are wrong.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=520573410 Chad Carteret

      I had a feeling I wasn’t using these words incorrectly. Thanks for pointing this out. This article kind of pisses me off now that I think about it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=580445662 Linda Elizabeth

      Thank you :) As soon as I read the first one I knew this whole thing was full of poo.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=507107053 David Dineen-Porter

    Actually, Ironic doesn’t mean contrary to what you’d expect, it deals exclusively with opposites. Things have to be the opposite of what is intended, what is meant, or what is understood to be ironic. Sarcastically saying a dress is nice, when you mean ‘t not nice is irony. A diabetic being hit by a falling crate of insulin vials is ironic. It’s not just not what is expected, insulin is the life saving medication that has killed this person. It’s the opposite. People misuse dramatic irony a lot too, thinking it means that we know something a character doesn’t, but it actually means we know that what a character is saying is the opposite of what they mean, or that the character is believed to be the opposite of what he or she is, or that the istuation appears to be the opposite of what we know it is. Opposites only.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1009560348 Jessica Magriplis Johnson

      Contrary = opposite

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=831170689 Rick Dyer

        I do not think that contrary is always opposite while opposite of what is expected would always be considered contrary. If I am expecting a dog to walk through the door but a cat walks in instead (assuming dogs and cats are opposite) then the opposite has occurred. If however, a horse walks through the door, then something contrary to what I expected, but not necessarily the opposite, has transpired. If I expect black, but white appears=opposite. If I expect a yes answer but get maybe that would be contrary. They are not always synonymous.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=506608364 Jessica Lamontagne

      finally a smart person

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=586815243 Diane Marriott

      Um, actually Dramatic Irony DOES mean that the audience grasps a fact that the character doesnt. Socratic Irony is the use of words to mean something different than they first appear to mean, or saying something in pretended ignorance just to get someone else to expound on a topic about which you already know (like an interrogation technique). Situational Irony is the irony that most people use – it’s the difference between what you expect to happen and what actually happens. Saying someone’s dress is pretty when you actually mean it is ugly isn’t irony unless the person knows what you actually meant. – Sarcasm is merely an extreme form of irony wherein both parties know that you mean the opposite of what you say, so you would never say something “ironic” in a “sarcastic” tone (not correctly, anyway). Your example of the diabetic getting killed by a falling crate of insulin was good, but not because it’s an “opposite” but rather because insulin killing a diabetic is incongruent to insulin’s purpose – again, that’s Situational Irony.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=9369714 Ken McCarthy

    another commonly confused pair is “versus” verses “verses”

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=659304391 Wendie Tobin

      To be fair, that relates to mispronunciation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=523788951 Christine Rose Elle

    WOW! Thanks for this! I have been using these all wrong! Really fun article!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=580445662 Linda Elizabeth

      No, you actually haven’t. These words all mean what it says we think it means. Many words have MULTIPLE definitions. Whoever wrote this article is an idiot.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002590624202 Jaycee Grey

    In several cases, you are merely pointing out *other* meanings of the word, not words that are entirely misused.

    Enormity, for example. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/enormity

    1. outrageous or heinous character; atrociousness: the enormity of war crimes.
    2. something outrageous or heinous, as an offense: The bombing of the defenseless population was an enormity beyond belief.
    3. greatness of size, scope, extent, or influence; immensity: The enormity of such an act of generosity is staggering.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=132200783 Kris Burgart Junik

    Actually, in 2009, “conversate” was (regrettably) added to the dictionary. It means to carry on a conversation.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=507582781 Kelly Smith

      It is very regrettable, I cringe a little when I hear it used.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1145589152 Hans Bomers

        Kris, Kelly, to me it sounds more like the word conversate was RE-added to dictionaries after it became outdated. I mean, “conversation” is a real word, and it seems highly unlikely to me that that word just came out of nowhere and did not originate as a mutation of the word “conversate”.

        Besides, I get that you cringe at it because to you it sounds like a new, made up word. But even if it is a new word: it is a useful word that perfectly follows the logic of other verbs that end in “-ate”, so I don’t really see the problem. You’ll get used to it!! :)

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504891566 Rachelle Lietz

          Hans, you’re somewhat right – it comes from converse.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1096056364 Roy Koczela

        Yeah, but that could be interpretated to mean that you just haven’t been orientated.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1841212995 Nick Andrews

      Ah, yes, ebonics…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=658111285 Sonja L Andrus

    Well, for you “find a dictionary” folks, there’s something you’re missing. Dictionaries come in two flavors: descriptive and prescriptive. This is very important for language learners and teachers (and commenters) alike. Descriptive dictionaries, like those that you can access for free on the Internet, explain how words are used. “Conversate” was added to descriptive dictionaries for its frequent use. Second-language learners use descriptive dictionaries to figure out what the heck we’re all saying because we use words in ways that have changed from their original intended uses. Prescriptive dictionaries explain how words are supposed to be used (and the really fun ones explain why and where the word comes from). These are the sort your English teachers were always asking you to buy and then reference, actually. (I guess there’s technically a third dictionary that marries the descriptive use and prescriptive definitions…but these are quite costly, and usually only research libraries have access to the digital or hard copies of them.)

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000444975155 Crystal Shepard

      And prescriptive dictionaries are rather foolish. Language is fluid. It changes over time, differs among various groups and is sensitive to context. It also wasn’t handed down to us from on high, We don’t have an English Academy, let alone God-inscribed tablets. So lacking any real force for prescriptivity, the only sense of “correctness” left is effectiveness in communication, Guess what, if you use most of the words above in the “correct” manner described in the article, you won’t communicate effectively.

      And though it may provide some harmless joy to snark at Alanis when she sings “Ironic,” if you correct your friends when they use the word that way you’re just an ass.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=607097631 Beth King-Mock

        Crystal, youʻd be surprised how many people you can confuse by using the “common” misrepresentative versions of the words listed here. Using a word wrongly simply because itʻs commonplace to do so only communicates that you donʻt know any better than the folks who use it ignorantly. (by the way … you might need to look up the difference between stupid and ignorant, lest you choose to become offended at that statement)

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1280744710 Peter Marengo

          No Beth, Crystal is absolutely right and you are wrong about this. Folks who don’t understand that dictionaries do not set the standard for language (they merely are a written reflection of current language usage) are the ones who come across as ignorant… and rather bougie as well. And yes, “bougie” is a real word.

          At least eight of the ten words listed have more than one meaning, and the author apparently chose to ignore the alternate meanings that are, indeed, just as correct as his preferred meanings.

          Language is fluid and constantly changing along with word meanings. As with everything else in life, those who live in the past and cannot keep up get left behind and end up as crotchety old folks complaining about how things have changed. 😉

          By the way, arrogantly telling Crystal that she “might need to look up the difference between stupid and ignorant, lest she choose to become offended at that statement” is very arrogant and, yes, downright bougie. It only serves to make you sound like one of those crotchety old folks I was writing about. Surely you’re not, are you?

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=538221215 Tyler Harcus

            It’s funny, the only definition I can find for “bougie” is “A slender, flexible, cylindrical instrument that is inserted into a bodily canal, such as the urethra, to dilate, examine, or medicate.” or “a suppository”.
            You are probably referring to a bastardized (misspelled) version of “bourgeoisie”, which originally meant “middle class” but has evolved to mean something like “a middle class person trying to be upper class”, or “putting on airs”.

            • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=668495668 Muriel Areno

              Exactly. Bougie is French for candle. Boogie is something else. 😉 He meant bourge, maybe?

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=723414765 Tom Leland

          You’ve missed Crystal’s point. In fact, many of the words you would say are being used incorrectly, themselves had their meanings changed at some remote point in their history — a change that could only have occurred through simple usage. Language is organic. You must look elsewhere to find absolute order and consistency — it will never be provided by language.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1476212375 Leigh Ann Connole Sutherland

      You are only partially correct. There are several types of dictionaries you did not mention. Teachers and ELLs do not necessarily gravitate to a particular type of dictionary. You seem not to understand that all dictionaries change as words evolve-and they do evolve! New words and definitions are added as words evolve. It does not have to do with the type of dictionary consulted. It has to do with the language and how it is used. Your post has a rather superior attitude, and your facts are incorrect. BTW, many types of dictionaries are accessible for free! It does not have to do with type, but the publisher. Some companies do not make their products available without subscriptions or other fees because of money, not type of dictionary.
      That something has several meanings does not mean the extra meanings are not “correct.” How snobbish of you to post such inaccurate information!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=214300014 Jolie Chevalier-Holloway

    If nauseous means causing nausea, wouldn’t the better term be nauseating?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001505052322 Bullet Kang

    Terrific reminds me of having homework graded by teachers in elementary school. They always stamped terrific, wonderful, or fantastic on homework that was well done. It always seemed like they were saying it was terrifying (terrific), inexplicable (wonderful), or bizarre (fantastic). 😛

    Also, seriously, how can you get the meaning of compel wrong? “The power of Christ compels you,” from the Exorcist…clearly it means that you are being forced to do something, not that you want to…lol

    Furthermore, don’t ever say you perused something, unless you read that damn thing cover to cover!

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