25 Words That Don’t Mean What You Think

"Education Dictionary Word Knowledge Definition" by PDPics

“Education Dictionary Word Knowledge Definition” by PDPics is dedicated to the public domain under CC0.

Those who study languages live in fear of false friends: words whose meanings are radically different than what they seem. English speakers learning Spanish are humiliated to find that embarazada means “pregnant.” Their German-studying counterparts will turn red-faced in the restaurant when they learn that die Pickel means “pimples.”

But false friends are not found only in foreign tongues. English has plenty of them, due to a variety of factors. Not least among this is its history as an amalgamation of different European languages, which has led to an abundance of homophones and homonyms that aren’t even close to being synonyms. Here, I’ve compiled a list of 25 misunderstood and misused words; become real friends with them, would you?

1. Academese
You think it means: The language of academia.
But it actually means: The language used by people trying to fake the language of academia.
Use it: When someone is failing spectacularly at sounding educated, especially to the extent that they are difficult or impossible to understand.
Don’t use it: When a scholarly article is difficult for you to read, or when a professor loses you in the lecture.

2. Affect
You think it means: The end result of a cause.
But it actually means: To be influenced by a cause. When used as a noun, it is a synonym to “countenance,” as in the phrase, “a flat affect.”
Use it: As a verb to describe the changes in a person, place, or thing caused by some other person place or thing. As a noun, to describe the look of someone’s face. Remember, “You have an effect on me when you affect me.”
Don’t use it: “Cause and affect.”

3. Alright
You think it means: To be okay.
But it actually means: Nothing. “All right” is standard English.
Use it: Never.
Don’t use it: Ever.

4. Ambivalent
You think it means: Unbiased or uninterested in a decision or debate with two sides; not caring.
But it actually means: Having strong feelings for both sides of a decision or debate.
Use it: When you want to convey a sense of inner conflict and turmoil over a decision.
Don’t use it: When someone doesn’t give a damn what happens.

5. Bated
You think it means: Who knows? Probably slang for masturbation.
But it actually means: Very anxiously or excitedly, as in, “to wait with bated breath.”
Use it: When you’re trying to show a suspenseful feeling.
Don’t use it: When you mean “baited.”

6. Bemused
You think it means: Amused, mildly humored or interested.
But it actually means: Confused or perplexed.
Use it: If someone is disoriented or baffled.
Don’t use it: If someone is laughing.

7. Compelled
You think it means: To be inspired.
But it actually means: To be forced.
Use it: When coercion is involved.
Don’t use it: When someone is picking up the phone because of a commercial.

8. Decimate
You think it means: To utterly destroy.
But it actually means: To reduce by 1/10th.
Use it: Whenever you feel like talking about devastation, honestly. People stopped caring about this one ages ago.
Don’t use it: If you’re a language purist.

9. Dilemma
You think it means: A sticky situation.
But it actually means: A situation where a difficult choice must be made between two bad options.
Use it: When someone is forced to pick the lesser of two evils.
Don’t use it: If the time in question is just a simple problem, like a flat tire.

10. Discrete
You think it means: Politely quiet or inconspicuous.
But it actually means: Separate and distinct.
Use it: If you are talking about the individuality of people, places, or things compared to other people, places, or things.
Don’t use it: When you mean “discreet.”

11. Enervated
You think it means: Inspired or enabled to action.
But it actually means: The opposite.
Use it: When someone is completely drained of motivation or energy.
Don’t use it: When you mean “innervated.”

12. Fascist
You think it means: Someone or something upholding the status quo or imposes undue judgment.
But it actually means: The particular belief system of Benito Mussolini. Or, someone or something maintaining a militantly anti-Semitic belief system that is based on nationalism and the vilification of foreigners.
Use it: To describe Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy.
Don’t use it: To describe a police officer arresting a protester.

13. I.E.
You think it means: For example.
But it actually means: In essence.
Use it: If you are flushing out an idea by describing it in other words, i.e. to say “that is.”
Don’t use it: When you should use “e.g.” instead.

14. Inflammable
You think it means: Incapable of catching fire.
But it actually means: The opposite, when properly used. Related to “inflamed.” English’s use of the prefix “in-” to nullify a root word—incoherent, indescribable, intolerable—caused misunderstandings among the uneducated, so “flammable” became the preferred term for warning labels.
Use it: To mean “combustible,” unless, to quote Strunk and White, you “are concerned with the safety of children and illiterates.”
Don’t use it: To mean “combustible,” under the same conditions as above.

15. Less
You think it means: In lower quantity.
But it actually means: A smaller amount of. Or, not as much of.
Use it: When referring to something that cannot be counted, e.g. effectiveness, flour, love, water, etc.
Don’t use it: When you mean “fewer.”

16. Nauseous
You think it means: To feel sick to one’s stomach.
But it actually means: Capable of making a person feel sick to his or her stomach.
Use it: When referring to something unpleasant.
Don’t use it: When you mean “nauseated.”

17. Noisome
You think it means: Annoying loud or noisy.
But it actually means: Having a very offensive smell.
Use it: When describing something foul-smelling or highly distasteful.
Don’t use it: If you’re talking about noise pollution.

18. Nonplussed
You think it means: Unaffected.
But it actually means: Surprised or confused to the point that you are unable to think clearly or make decisions.
Use it: When someone is tongue-tied or physically awkward after receiving a shocking or twisted piece of news.
Don’t use it: If someone is unshaken or unfazed.

19. Panacea
You think it means: A medicine, particularly in reference to the ailment it treats.
But it actually means: The one medicine to cure all ailments.
Use it: If you’re discussing snake oil or some other miracle cure.
Don’t use it: When talking about aspirin.

20. Peruse
You think it means: To skim over or casually look through material.
But it actually means: To read or analyse intently.
Use it: When talking about a book you read cover-to-cover.
Don’t use it: To describe how you read a text book before the final.

21. Redundant
You think it means: To repeat information unnecessarily.
But it actually means: Superfluous, especially words that may be omitted without loss of meaning or information.
Use it: If you think part of a text should be trimmed.
Don’t use it: Just because part of a text sounds echo-y.

22. Sarcastic
You think it means: Dryly funny or snide.
But it actually means: To have a different meaning than its face-value, when that meaning is determined by context or tone.
Use it: Whenever you want, it doesn’t matter. (Note: sarcasm doesn’t work without an indicator—such as “/sarcasm” or an interrobang—in electronic communications.)
Don’t use it: When you’re just being insulting.

23. Sayonara
You think it means: “See you later.”
But it actually means: “Goodbye forever.”
Use it: When you don’t think you’ll ever see a person, place, or thing again.
Don’t use it: As a cute farewell to someone or something you plan to visit later.

24. Ultimate
You think it means: The absolute best superlative, as in “He is the ultimate writer.”
But it actually means: Final.
Use it: If you’re ending an argument or idea (“Ultimately, …”), or discussing the last part in a process (“the ultimate test”).
Don’t use it: Without “in” to describe a high level of achievement: “the ultimate in vacuum technology.”

25. Wizened
You think it means: Having become sage-like over a period of time.
But it actually means: Wrinkled with age.
Use it: To talk about an elderly person, or overripe fruit.
Don’t use it: When you mean “wise.”

Do you get annoyed when people misuse words? Are there any words or phrases that you’re unsure about? Let me know in the comments!


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