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WORDS

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

Paul Anthony Jones
iStock
iStock / iStock
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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."

A young blond woman paying with a credit card at a shop
A young blond woman paying with a credit card at a shop / iStock

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."

A young woman with a wry smile
A young woman with a wry smile / iStock

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.”

A skeptical woman texting on a phone
A skeptical woman texting on a phone / iStock

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.”

A pair of blue shoes on the ground with yellow arrows pointing in two different directions
A pair of blue shoes on the ground with yellow arrows pointing in two different directions / iStock

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.”

A bored little girl in an elementary classroom
A bored little girl in an elementary classroom / iStock

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.”

Electrical cables with a sign that says
Electrical cables with a sign that says / iStock

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.”

A little boy with his arms spread out, wearing an oversized t-shirt
A little boy with his arms spread out, wearing an oversized t-shirt / IStock

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.”

the word facts printed ona  slip of paper in red ink surrounded by slips with question marks in black ink
the word facts printed ona slip of paper in red ink surrounded by slips with question marks in black ink / iStock

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.”

The lower half of a person in a pink tutu and cowgirl boots
The lower half of a person in a pink tutu and cowgirl boots / iStock

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.”

A pair of aces and stacks of poker chips on a green background
A pair of aces and stacks of poker chips on a green background / iStock

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.”

iStock

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.”

A series of arrows pointing at targets
A series of arrows pointing at targets / iStock

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.”

Young boy in oversized black glasses and bow tie with a head of broccoli expressing disgust
Young boy in oversized black glasses and bow tie with a head of broccoli expressing disgust / iStock

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.”

A bowl of black caviar and flutes of champagne
A bowl of black caviar and flutes of champagne / iStock

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.”

Confused bearded man in eyeglasses shrugging his shoulders
Confused bearded man in eyeglasses shrugging his shoulders / iStock

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.”

Young woman standing behind a glass wall with post-it notes
Young woman standing behind a glass wall with post-it notes / iStock

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.”

A young man in a business suit reading the paper
A young man in a business suit reading the paper / iStock

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.”

A little girl playing in a pile of autumn leaves
A little girl playing in a pile of autumn leaves / iStock

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.”

A young woman at a desk surrounded by paperwork, playing with a paper airplane
A young woman at a desk surrounded by paperwork, playing with a paper airplane / iStock

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.”

A close-up of a man's hand facing outward in a
A close-up of a man's hand facing outward in a / iStock

“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.”

A yearly calendar with several colorful thumbtacks in it
A yearly calendar with several colorful thumbtacks in it / iStock

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.”

Young nervous woman biting fingernails
Young nervous woman biting fingernails / iStock

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.”

A young woman with a towel around her neck drinking a bottle of water
A young woman with a towel around her neck drinking a bottle of water / iStock

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.”

An empty, winding road in an S-shape
An empty, winding road in an S-shape / iStock

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.”

A statue of Lady Justice in an office
A statue of Lady Justice in an office / iStock

“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.”

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