Tyler Vendetti
September 10, 2015 3:27 am

Picture this: you’re hanging out with a group of friends, going on about how “tortuous” your class schedule is, when suddenly somebody points out that “tortuous” does not actually mean “agonizing” like you thought it did. These kind of mistakes happen more often than you’d think, a fact that linguist Steven Pinker can attest to. In his new book The Sense of Style, Pinker outlines over a dozen common words that people tend to misuse. As a proud word fanatic, I feel as though it is my duty to share a few of them here. For starters:

1) Tortuous

What you think it means: torturous

What it actually means: twisting

If I’m being honest, I think the person who penned the definition for this word was just plain cruel. Why, for the love of language, would you put me at risk of calling my grandmother’s driveway “torturous” instead of “tortuous”? All because of one rogue letter? Do you know how upset that would make her? What have I ever done to you?

2) Disinterested

What you think it means: uninterested

What it actually means: unbiased

When your teacher asks you why you fell asleep in class and you say you were “disinterested” in her American History discussion, what you’re really saying is that you dozed off because you were too objective, which makes so little sense, he or she would probably lead you right from the principal’s office to a grammar class.

3) Reticent

What you think it means: reluctant

What it actually means: shy

The confusion surrounding reticent is not all that surprising, considering how closely associated “reluctant” and “shy” are. Shy people can sometimes be very reluctant to do a lot of things, like speak to other humans, for example, so lumping the two terms together seems natural.

4) Enormity

What you think it means: enormousness

What it actually means: extreme evil

This one was news to me. It’s a short leap from “enormity” to “enormousness” but a very big leap from “enormity” to “extreme evil.” I mean like chasm big. You might need to pole vault across it or something, because there is nothing about the word “enormity” that suggests “evil” unless you’re terrified of like, elephants because you think they’re out to stomp on you. Which actually, now that I’m thinking about it, does sound pretty terrifying. Carry on, enormity, carry on…

5) Adverse

What you think it means: averse

What it actually means: detrimental

This is another case of “the pesky added letter” that’s out to ruin all of our lives. Adverse looks very similar to averse but in reality, the two are nothing alike. You can be “averse” or disinclined to do something, but not “adverse.” The distinction is subtle, I know, but it’ll be okay. We’re all in this together, remember? Baby steps.

6) Simplistic

What you think it means: naively simple

What it actually means: pleasingly simple

If you’re wondering why your neighbor was offended that you called her husband simplistic, this might be why. Someone may have simple goals or a simple lifestyle that they’re content with, but calling them “simplistic” suggests that that person is too simple, almost to the point of being stupid.

7) Noisome

What you think it means: noisy

What it actually means: smelly

If we’re comfortable allowing “noisome” (which looks so much like “noisy,” I’m almost tempted to think it’s a bad joke) to be defined as “smelly,” I propose we add a few new words to our dictionary. First, “smellsome” meaning “tasty.” Second, “yummysome” meaning “loud.” And third, “eyeballsome” meaning “pleasing to the ear.” Because those all make just as much sense.

8) Intern

What you think it means: to inter or to bury

What it actually means: to imprison

Intern’s real definition “to imprison” is not all that surprising to me. They don’t call them “internships” for nothing. (I’m kidding. Internships are great and you should all do them. There’s my PSA for the day.)

9) Bemused

What you think it means: amused

What it actually means: bewildered

I would be very confused if you told me you were bemused by the new Minions movie. I know they’re little yellow blobs with limbs and squeaky voices, but surely there are more bewildering things out there? Like the word colonel, perhaps? Or Snuggies?

10) New Age

What you think it means: modern, futuristic

What it actually means: spiritualistic

Excuse me while I double check every college essay I have ever turned in to see how many times I used this phrase incorrectly. (Hint: It was every time.)

BONUS: Cliché

I’m including “cliché” as a bonus word, not because you’ve been using its definition wrong but because you’ve probably been using it as an adjective instead of what it actually is: a noun. If you wanted to tell your English major friend that her Catcher in the Rye phone case is totally cliché, you’d have to add a “d” at the end to make it grammatically accurate. Her case is either “clichéd” or it’s “a cliché.” I don’t know. Blame the French.

How many have you been using incorrectly?

(Featured image via NBC/Giphy).