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.

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  • Heroic Hal

    The note about “nauseous” is false. It’s the same deal as with “terrific”: the meanings of words can change, and words can have meanings today that they didn’t have centuries ago. The Oxford English Dictionary gives “Of a person, the stomach, etc.: inclined to sickness or nausea; squeamish” and “Of a person: affected with nausea; having an unsettled stomach” as the first two definitions, and gives examples of these uses from as far back as 1613. Then it gives the “causing nausea” definition, but characterizes it as “literary”.

  • http://www.cyber-key.com/SocialSEO/ M.-J. Taylor

    Unfortunately, the article is off base on ‘travesty,’ ‘enormity’ and ‘nausea.’ But I *was using ‘peruse’ incorrectly, and I appreciate that correction.

    • Heroic Hal

      Interesting, my reaction to “travesty” was that I’ve never heard anyone use it to mean “tragedy”.

  • Eloise Horsey

    A very informative article! Although the OED contradicts the definition of ‘nauseous’ given here.

    I would like to add ‘notorious’ and ‘infamous’ to the list.

  • Shkuc

    My dick is aí hard right now

  • Ribbit

    I checked the ones I thought strange in this article in online dictionaries, and indeed, as others said, the meaning deemed “wrong” here is actually legitimate, although not the only meaning of the word.

    Enormity: It has more than one sense, and one of them is
    (In neutral use) large size or scale: I began to get a sense of the enormity of the task

    Nauseous: it can mean both “affecting by nausea” and “causing nausea” or in a figurative sense “disgusting, offensive”.

  • brousselaine

    There are more than one definition for redundancy, and one of them has to do with duplication, but strictly in a goal of serving as a backup if the original fails to do what it’s supposed to.

    The misconception of redundancy meaning explicitly something repeated unnecessarily is therefore a mix of the « superfluous » meaning the « backup » one.

  • Jackie311

    I would add “overcomer”. What people think it means: someone who has overcome adversity. What it actually means: ABSOLUTELY NOTHING because it’s not a word. Not only does it bother me because it’s not a word, but because if it were a word, it sounds like something pornographic to me.

    • Heroic Hal

      You’re mistaken. Why would you think it isn’t a word? Since it’s formed by a verb with the standard suffix -er on the end, it should be a word for that reason alone. If people use it a lot, that makes it a word. Finally, the word is recognized as one by the Oxford English Dictionary, which dates it back to at least the 14th century.

  • http://www.amodelandhisartists.blogspot.com Warmenuf

    You left out “to decimate,” which means “to destroy 1/10 of” rather than “to completely destroy.”

    • Heroic Hal

      “Meant”, not “means”. The old meaning has been pretty well superseded in regular use. Granted, the Oxford English Dictionary calls that usage “colloquial”.

  • Bailey Brown

    I think ironic can be used for a funny coincidence though. Going by the definition you provided, you never would have expected to see a talking turtle in a sweater vest, but you did (contrary to what you might expect). Obviously it can be used for other situations as well but I don’t think it’s wrong to use “ironic” in that context.

  • Karen Varbalow

    In most of these cases you have addressed only one definition, which may not be the one we usually think it means. But the one we DO think is an alternate definition. Let’s start with compelled, which is to bring about by
    force but one can also feel compelled to do something, as in definition
    7: to have a powerful and irresistible effect, influence, etc.
    there’s ironic, with multiple meanings. The author’s meaning is number
    one, but number three is ” coincidental; unexpected: It was ironic that
    I was seated next to my ex-husband at the dinner.” So, the author is
    wrong about that.
    means to cause nausea, as the author states, but it also means affected
    with nausea, which is what the author says we think it means but
    doesn’t. Well, guess what? It does.
    author points out that redundant means superfluous, able to be cut out,
    but that’s because it’s repetitive. (which he claims it doesn’t mean.)
    third definition of enormity is greatness of size. That is what we
    think it means and that is what the author claims it doesn’t mean.
    And lastly, terrific means causing terror but it also means extremely good, wonderful.

  • emily

    What about inception? Ever since the movie came out I keep seeing it used to mean something within something else (as in a dream within a dream). For example, if there is a photo of someone holding a photo of someone who is holding a photo of someone, ive seen people say “photo inception!” However it actually just means the establishment or start of something. Drives me crazy.

  • Laura

    My favorite misused word is “decimated.” People use it to mean total utter destruction but the original meaning is to take only one tenth of something. Which by comparison is not really too bad.

  • Casey Covello

    Isn’t a coincidence an example of Situational Irony?

    • Izza

      No, it still has to be something that goes against expectation.

  • Nadine Callan

    I’ve heard ‘conversate’ a few times and just want to shake the person saying it. While yelling at them “Spreka de english? Parley vous fransis? DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?”. Being a Newfie we have some pretty strange names for things and some really, really strange dialect to mainlanders. I even shake my head when people want to conversate with me or axe me a question. OMG don’t get me started on the whole “axe” thing. No you may not axe me a question however you may ask me a question anytime. I was searching that very ax vs ask and one of the first result was saying Newfoundlanders pronounce it ax sorry we do not the only time I ever hear it that way is getto slang in the states. Never confuse a thick accent with pronunciation if a Newfie is talking to you about an axe he wants you to pick the damn thing up and split some wood.

  • Arpit Zanes Nayak

    Ooh. Propensity means capability. I had trouble with this before myself. Also, tortuous and torturous are too completely different things. I messed up these words quite often in the past.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=630090671 Regina Winemiller

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

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1803951218 Evelyn Newbrough

    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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1306320931 Rob Laundy

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

    • Heroic Hal

      I wouldn’t, since some of it is wrong, unless you make the mistakes themselves part of the point of what you’re teaching them (about how language changes; about what really determines what the meaning of a word is).

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=634434286 Dug Mcdowell

    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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=634434286 Dug Mcdowell

    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.

    • Guest

      It’s terrific, is what it is.

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