25 Words That Don’t Mean What You Think They Do

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If there’s one thing that’s sure to irritate a nit-picking grammar pedant, it’s someone saying that they “literally” jumped out of their skin, or that they “literally” died laughing. Neither of those things literally happened (or at least we hope they didn’t). Instead they happened figuratively, whereas literally means “actually,” “exactly,” or “in a literal sense.” But literally gets misused so often that the looser, emphatic use of it to mean “figuratively” or “effectively” has now landed itself a place in the dictionary—much to some people’s annoyance.

Elsewhere in the dictionary, however, there are plenty of words being misused and misinterpreted, many of which aren’t anywhere near as well-known or as easy to spot as literally—and so might find their way into the day-to-day language of even the most careful grammarians.

1. BARTER DOESN'T MEAN "HAGGLE."

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Far from it, in fact. If you haggle, you negotiate a cash price. If you barter, you exchange one skill, commodity, or thing for another—typically without money being involved at all.

2. BEMUSED DOESN'T MEAN "AMUSED."

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Strictly speaking, bemused and amused don’t mean the same thing. Although the use of bemused to mean “wryly amused” is so widespread nowadays that it has found its way into the dictionary, bemused actually means “dazed,” “bewildered,” or “addled.”

3. DEPRECIATE DOESN’T MEAN “DEPRECATE.”

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If something depreciates, then it reduces in value. To deprecate something is to express disapproval of it, or to denounce or criticize it. Although there’s some crossover between the two (to be self-deprecating is basically the same as being self-depreciating, despite the latter being 40 times rarer as an expression), depreciation is more concerned with lowering value of something rather than belittling or disapproving of it.

4. DILEMMA DOESN’T MEAN “QUANDARY.”

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The “di–” of dilemma means “two,” so a dilemma is really a difficult situation in which a choice has to be made between two alternatives. It’s not, strictly speaking, just a problem or a quandary. As for a choice between three alternatives? Yep, that’s a trilemma.

5. DISINTERESTED DOESN’T MEAN “UNINTERESTED.”

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Many people don’t realize that there is a difference at all here. Uninterested means “not interested” and is a synonym of words like “bored,” “impervious,” “indifferent” and “unemotional.” Disinterested means “not having an interest” in something, and as such is a synonym of words like “impartial,” “uninvolved,” or “unbiased.” The two are used so interchangeably these days that they’ve effectively become synonyms of one another—but it’s a distinction some speakers and style guides are keen to maintain.

6. ELECTROCUTE DOESN’T MEAN “TO GET AN ELECTRIC SHOCK.”

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This one is staring you in the face: electrocute is a portmanteau of “electric execution.” So to be electrocuted is to be put to death or be injured by an electric current, not merely to receive an electric shock.

7. ENORMITY DOESN’T MEAN “ENORMOUSNESS.”

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Enormity, some people insist, is improperly used to denote large size,” explains Merriam-Webster. “They insist on enormousness for this meaning, and would limit enormity to the meaning ‘great wickedness.’” If you sign up to that rule, you can talk about the enormity of heinous things like crimes or corruption, but not of sizable things (unless their size is particularly heinous or unpleasant). It’s a subtle distinction, but it certainly exists.

8. FACTOID DOESN’T MEAN “FACT.”

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Norman Mailer coined the word factoid in 1973, but unlike most people who use it today, he did not intend it to mean “a throwaway piece of trivia.” Instead factoids, he explained, are “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.” In other words, it’s an invented bit of fake news that is only taken as true because it has appeared in print.

9. FLAUNT DOESN’T MEAN “FLOUT.”

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Flaunting involves showing off. You can flout the rules, but you can’t flaunt them no matter how often those two get confused.

10. FORTUITOUS DOESN’T MEAN “FORTUNATE.”

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The similarity between fortuitous and fortunate has led to this pair becoming all but interchangeable. But if you want to get pedantic, something that is fortuitous just happens by chance or luck. If it happens by good luck, only then is it fortunate.

11. GRIZZLY DOESN’T MEAN “HORRIBLE.”

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The word you’re looking for there is probably grisly. In fact, despite grizzly bears being brown, grizzly actually means “gray-haired.”

12. HONE DOESN’T MEAN “TO CLOSE IN.”

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Hone means simply “sharpen,” so you can hone your wits or your senses, but you can’t hone in on something. You can, however, home in on it.

13. LOATH DOESN’T MEAN “HATE.”

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Just as loathe-with-an-E doesn’t mean “unwilling.” If you’re loath to do something, then you don’t want to do it. You might also loathe it, but of the two loathe-with-an-E is the verb and means simply “to dislike greatly.”

14. LUXURIANT DOESN’T MEAN “LUXURIOUS.”

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Although these two are widely used interchangeably, luxuriant and luxurious are not really synonyms. Something that is luxurious is characterized by luxury, whereas something that is luxuriant is lush, overblown, or prolifically overabundant.

15. NONPLUSSED DOESN’T MEAN “NOT BOTHERED.”

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Many people use nonplussed to mean “unperturbed” or “unaffected,” but it actually means “perplexed” or “confounded.” It derives from the Latin expression non plus, which literally means “no more,” and in this context refers to a situation in which you’re so utterly confused or bewildered that you can’t say or do anything else.

16. OBLIVIOUS DOESN’T MEAN “UNAWARE.”

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Or at least, it didn’t originally. Oblivious derives from the same root as oblivion and originally meant “forgetful” or “lacking memory” when it first appeared in the language in the 15th century. The looser and now much more widespread use of oblivious to mean “unaware” or “unconcerned” is a later development of that original meaning, but isn’t universally accepted.

17. PERUSE DOESN’T MEAN “BROWSE.”

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You’ll often hear people talk about idly perusing magazines or websites, with the implication that they’re casually glancing over them and not taking them in in too much detail. In fact, what they’re saying is quite the opposite: the “per–” of peruse means “thoroughly” or “completely” (just as it does in words like perturb and perfect), so perusing something actually means studying it in great detail. (However, some dictionaries also include the more recent meaning of "to read casually.")

18. PLETHORA DOESN’T MEAN “A LOT OF.”

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Strictly speaking, it means “too much of,” or “an overabundance of.” Originally, plethora was a medical term referring to a surplus or imbalance of bodily fluids—and in particular blood—that could be blamed for a period of ill health; in that sense it literally means “fullness” in Greek.

19. PREVARICATE DOESN’T MEAN “TO PUT OFF.”

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Confusion with procrastinate is probably at the root of the use of prevaricate to mean “to waste or play for time” or “to put off to a later date.” Instead, to prevaricate actually means “to speak or act evasively.” You might have the intention of stalling for time in doing so, but that’s not the word’s meaning.

20. REFUTE DOESN’T MEAN “DENY.”

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“I refute that!” means that you can prove it to be false, not merely that you deny or reject that it’s true.

21. REGULARLY DOESN’T MEAN “OFTEN.”

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If something happens regularly, then it happens at regular, ordered intervals or in a predictable, uniform way. How often (or how seldom) those intervals occur isn’t actually implied by the word itself, so regularly doesn’t mean the same as “frequently.”

22. RETICENT DOESN’T MEAN “HESITANT.”

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Reticent means “unwilling to speak” or “not forthcoming.” It’s used so often in place of reluctant—which just means “unwilling”—that it’s often listed in the dictionary as a synonym of “unenthusiastic” or “disinclined,” but strictly speaking it’s a lot more specific than that.

23. SALUBRIOUS DOESN’T MEAN “GOOD.”

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The adjective salubrious is often used in a fairly general way to describe anything that is positive, or has a positive effect or influence. Actually, salubrious derives from a Latin word literally meaning “safe” or “healthy,” and so should only ever be used to describe things that are positive or beneficial to your health.

24. TORTUOUS DOESN’T MEAN “UNBEARABLE.”

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The word you’re looking for there is torturous (as in torture) with a second R. Something that is tortuous is complexly twisting or meandering, or full of twists and turns.

25. TRAVESTY DOESN’T MEAN “DISASTER.”

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“Oh, it was an absolute travesty!” Confusion with the word tragedy has led to any deplorable occurrence or situation being described as a travesty, but that’s not really what the word means. A travesty is a distorted, unpleasantly mutated version or imitation of something—so a “travesty of justice” isn’t just bad justice, it’s a perverted, burlesque form of true justice. In that sense, travesty derives from a French word meaning “to disguise.”

What’s the Difference Between Forests, Woods, and Jungles?

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Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images

If you're an English speaker, there’s a good chance you often use the words woods, forest, and jungle correctly without even thinking about it. Even if a patch of trees takes up a significant portion of your backyard, you probably wouldn’t consider it a forest; and you wouldn’t talk about the beautiful fall foliage in New England’s jungles. Based on those examples, it seems like woods are smaller than forests, and jungles aren’t found in colder climates. This isn’t wrong—but there's more to it than that.

According to Merriam-Webster, a forest is “a dense growth of trees and underbrush covering a large tract,” while woods are “a dense growth of trees usually greater in extent than a grove and smaller than a forest.” The reason we consider forests to be larger than woods dates back to the Norman rule of Great Britain in 1066, when a forest was a plot of land owned by the Crown that was large enough to accommodate game for royal hunting parties. Whether that land contained trees or not was essentially irrelevant.

These days, scientists and land managers definitely consider the presence of trees necessary for land to be classified as a forest. To set it apart from woods, or woodland, it usually has to meet certain density qualifications, which are different depending on whom you ask.

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), a forest must cover about 1.24 acres of land, and its canopy cover—the amount of land covered by the treetops—must exceed 10 percent of the acreage [PDF]. “Other wooded land” must also span about 1.24 acres, but its canopy cover is between 5 and 10 percent. In a nutshell, the FAO thinks forests and woods are the same size, but forests are more dense than woods. Australia, on the other hand, employs plant ecologist Raymond Specht’s classification system for its vegetation, in which any tree-populated land with less than 30 percent canopy cover is a woodland, and anything more dense than that is a forest.

Unlike forests, jungles don’t have specific scientific classifications, because the word jungle isn’t really used by scientists. According to Sciencing, it’s a colloquial term that usually denotes what scientists refer to as tropical forests.

Tropical forests are located around the Equator and have the highest species diversity per area in the world. Since they’re so densely populated with flora and fauna, it makes sense that both Merriam-Webster and the Encyclopedia Britannica describe jungles as “tangled” and “impenetrable.” They’re bursting with millions of plants and animals that are different from what we see in temperate and boreal forests to the north.

Because most of us aren’t in the habit of clarifying which type of forest we’re talking about in casual conversation, it’s no surprise that we often refer to the temperate forests we see in our own climate simply as forests, which we differentiate from those rich, overgrown tropical territories to the south by calling them jungles.

To summarize, forests are historically and colloquially considered to be larger than woods, and scientifically considered to be more dense. Jungles are technically forests, too, since jungle is a casual word for what scientists call a tropical forest.

And, all differences aside, it’s relaxing to spend time in any of them—here are 11 scientific reasons why that’s true.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

5 Benefits of Sarcasm, According to Science

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AntonioGuillem/iStock via Getty Images

Writing of her future demise, author and humorist Dorothy Parker once observed that her epitaph might read, “Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.”

Celebrated for her scathing wit and wordplay, the late Parker might agree that sarcasm held tangible benefits. Doled out with care, ironic remarks—usually defined as communication that humorously conveys your intent through language that appears to be the opposite of what you mean—can amuse friends, lighten the mood, or broadcast your wit. But there’s more to sarcasm than simply eliciting a laugh. It turns out that the perks of your caustic muttering might have some scientific support. Take a look at a few peer-reviewed consequences to your snappy comebacks.

1. Sarcasm and humor might make you appear more confident, particularly at work.

In a 2016 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers evaluated adults on their responses to some candid remarks about fictional pet food and travel companies, among other subjects. Those with zingers were perceived as having more competence and confidence. “The successful use of humor—telling jokes that are funny and appropriate—can raise your status because it makes you appear more confident and more competent,” says co-author Thomas Bitterly, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business. “Confidence and competence are two of the key traits that determine whether we give someone status. The reason for this is because we want the individuals who have influence in a group to be those who are capable of leading it.”

Humor and sarcasm work to reinforce these traits, Bitterly tells Mental Floss, because humor itself is a risk. “Before we tell a joke, especially to people we do not know well, it’s difficult to know with certainty if our audience will find it funny and appropriate. If they find it unfunny and inappropriate, they will think that we lack competence and we will lose status. Given that humor is risky, telling a joke signals confidence,” he says.

2. Sarcasm can improve creativity.

In a 2015 paper [PDF] published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, researchers (including those at Harvard and Columbia business schools) made the case for sarcasm facilitating creative thinking. In a series of experiments, participants gave or received positive, neutral, or sarcastic responses with a partner. Those in the sarcastic groups performed better at creative tasks—like problem-solving on paper—after the fact.

"This is because both sarcasm construction and sarcasm interpretation are conducive to abstract thinking, a key cognitive precursor to creative thinking," lead author Li Huang, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, tells Mental Floss. Huang points to a common sarcastic comment aimed at someone wasting time in the workplace: "Don't work too hard." The intended meaning is likely to "work harder." Both the speaker and recipient benefit, Huang says, because both need to process the underlying message. The speaker must translate the admonishment to sarcasm, and the recipient has to consider what the speaker really meant. That abstraction fosters creative thinking because creativity is needed to discern the truth and not the literal meaning of the statement.

"In this way, to construct or interpret sarcasm is to traverse the psychological distance between the stated and the intended meaning through abstract thinking," Huang says.

There is one word of caution: Sarcasm tends to have this effect when it’s lobbed between two parties who know and trust one another. With strangers, it might simply come off as rude or confusing.

3. Sarcasm can make criticism seem almost pleasant.

Want to offer some constructive commentary without feeling like a jerk? In a 2016 paper published in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, co-author Melanie Glenwright, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba, examined how adults and children interpreted sarcastic commentary. The generally agreeable reactions by adults to criticism indicates it can be wrapped in an amusing remark that reduces the chance for the listener to feel offended.

“The use of indirect language allows the speaker to criticize the addressee indirectly which is perceived as more polite than a direct, literal insult,” Glenwright tells Mental Floss. "Speakers may use sarcasm to deliver insults in professional or social settings where they want to criticize another person in a less-harsh manner.”

4. Sarcasm can make for better social bonding.

When we pass along a humorous observation and someone agrees with it, we’re strengthening our bond with that individual, according to Glenwright. “[Sarcasm] improves social bonding between the speaker and the addressee,” she says. “Sarcasm can also be used to convey humor and jocularity which can improve mood both in the speaker and addressee.”

5. Sarcasm might make you appear more intelligent.

Sarcasm and humor alike share a common trait: They require creative thinking that’s rapidly deployed to analyze a situation. Depending on the company, Bitterly says that a clever retort could potentially have people thinking more highly of you. “Saying something that is funny and appropriate is difficult,” he says. “It requires being able to recognize an opportunity for humor—'did someone just say something I know a funny response for'—[and] being able to quickly generate or recall a funny response and being able to predict how the audience is going to respond. On top of those things, delivery and timing also matter …. We tend to view people who manage to successfully pull off all of these things as being more intelligent, and we see that reflected in the way we refer to them.”

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