10 Words That Don’t Mean What You May Think They Do

By Mark Nichol

As English evolves, word meanings shift and turn, sometimes reversing themselves altogether. These ten words have shifted their senses over the years. In some cases, we are wise to likewise be flexible; in others, we relax our vocabulary at the expense of useful distinctions:

1. Decimate

The literal meaning of this word, as all you lovers of Latin (not to be confused with Latin lovers) know all too well, is “to reduce by one-tenth,” supposedly from the punitive custom of selecting one out of ten captives by lot and killing those so selected. But the senses for this rhadamanthine Roman policy have proliferated, so that now it means “tithed,” “drastically reduced,” or “destroyed” as well.

2. Disinterested

Commonly employed to mean “not interested,” disinterested has a precise, useful meaning of “neutral, unbiased.”

3. Enormity

Some people would reserve this word to mean “monstrously wicked,” but, in truth, it is properly invoked to refer to anything overwhelming or an unexpected event of great magnitude, and thus it need not be invariably corrected to enormousness except when it is clearly in reference to a loathsome occurrence.

Refrain, however, from diluting the word’s impact in such usage as “The enormity of the new stadium struck them as they approached the towering entrance.”

4. Fortuitous

This word means “occurring by chance,” but its resemblance to fortune has given it an adopted sense of “lucky.”

For meticulous adherence to the traditional meaning, use fortuitous only in the sense indicated in this sentence: “His arrival at that moment was fortuitous, because her note had not specified the exact time of her departure.” Nothing in the context qualifies his arrival as fortunate; the sentence merely states that he arrived in time without knowing that he would do so.

The informal meaning is expressed here: “His fortuitous arrival at that very moment enabled him to intercept the incriminating letter.” In this sentence, the time of his appearance is identified as a lucky stroke.

5. Fulsome

This term originally meant “abundant, generous, full,” but that sense was rendered obsolete when the word acquired a negative connotation of “offensive, excessive, effusive.” Conservative descriptivists rail against the use of fulsome in a positive sense, but the cold, hard fact is that this sense has been increasingly resurgent for many years, and the adulatory meaning is now much more common than the condemnatory one.

If you wish to stand fast before the tsunami of inevitability, be my guest, but fulsome as an exquisite insult has been consigned to the dustbin of history. Some commentators recommend that because of the word’s ambiguity, it’s best to avoid its use altogether. If you insist, make sure the context is clear.

6. Ironic

The impact of ironic has been diluted because many people use it to mean “coincidental,” when its traditional definition is “counter to expectations or what is appropriate.”

7. Literally

Some folks get exercised when this term is used in place of its antonym, figuratively. However, in a hyperbolic sense, that meaning is justified. Unfortunately, that sense is literally overused.

8. Notorious

This term is occasionally used in a neutral sense, but that’s not an error, but the word literally means “known.” However, its dominant connotation is that the fame is a result of infamy.

9. Peruse

This victim of definition reversal literally means “to use thoroughly,” and its first sense is that of careful steady or attentive reading. However, many writers (myself included) have employed it as a synonym for scan — enough writers, as a matter of fact, that its second sense is “to look over or through in a casual or cursory manner.”

Unfortunately, these mirror meanings mean that if you use the word, I advise you to support it with context that clarifies the intended sense.

10. Plethora

Plethora originally referred to an excess of something, but that usage is rare now, and more often the sense is simply of abundance. The medical meaning of swelling caused by an excess of blood is all but unknown.

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51 Responses to “10 Words That Don’t Mean What You May Think They Do”

  • db

    What I love about English as a language is that by its very nature the words are malleable. While I can appreciate any opportunity taken to express some sense of superiority over people “misusing” the language, I think we should stick to the grammatical foibles as opposed to constraining the definitions of words.

    Of course that just may be because I have a habit of becoming super excited when I can stretch the meaning of a word in an unobvious direction. Although I think it is more a situation of the limitations of the language itself. There are foreign words that describe things where there are no English equivalents.

    It is within these gaps where we must ply our cultural slang into new ways of expressing ourselves. Eventually the definitions will change, and even words that are not part of the “accepted” vernacular make it into the dictionary.

    While I enjoyed the read, the argument is moot.

  • venqax

    tems: in the second example I think the definition of though (although) as “despite the fact” is being expanded to “despite what you might think”. E.g.

    “I’m leaving now”, she said.
    “You’re not finished, though”, he replied.

    That is informal or colloquial and probably hasn’t been recorded in all dictionaries.

    In the first case, the word though is simply misused as it doesn’t contrast anything at all, as you pointed out. There is no comparison implied by the facts that the field is called zoology and its practitioners operate in a variety of ways.

  • tems

    How about the word “though” ? Did it evolve to another meaning? Here’s a couple of sentences that a friend got from a book (I don’t know exactly which book):

    “People refer to the study of animals as zoology. As they work THOUGH, zoologists take many different approaches to studying animals.”

    and

    “People visiting lakes can typically see frogs, toads, turtles, lizards and even snakes. These animals are not identical THOUGH, as biologists have classified them separately.”

    It seems that the word “though” here is not used to oppose two ideas, as it is defined in dictionaries.

  • venqax

    So what WOULD justify their use now?

    The way they are used now, obviously. The fact that Shakespeare,e.g., used a word to mean something “then” doesn’t mean that it works anymore. Nice no longer means stupid and foolish, and no one thinks it does. Apple does not mean any kind of fruit in general anymore. And no one uses it that way. Of course you can exercise your personal preference and ask for an apple when you want an orange or a peach. Or in a stern tone tell someone his idiotic behavior is very nice. But it probably won’t work out that well for you.

  • Kavafy

    “I’m merely saying that the fact that the words could be used in that sense THEN does nothing to justify that use for them now.”

    So what WOULD justify their use now? It seems to me that, in the absence of popular consensus, these distinctions amount to little more than personal preference.

  • venqax

    And gay used to just mean happy or carefree. The only way to stop perfectly good words from being pirated is to refuse to play along, and do everything you CAN, which may not be much, to block others from abusing their priviliges of language.

  • Riccardo

    Before it started being used almost exclusively to refer to Nazi genocide, “holocaust” could mean an extreme conflagration.

    Before traffic reporters suggesting alternative routes began misusing and redefining it, “alternate” meant either “every other” (adjective) or “occurring in turn repeatedly” (verb).

    Before ignorant show-offs thought it was a highfalutin encomium, “penultimate” only meant “next to last.”

  • Stephen Winbaum

    ZEN is a monastic order of Buddhism exported by Dogen from China to Japan. Its central practice revolves around hours of meditation (Zazen), begging for alms, and contemplation of puzzling questions (Koans). The final transcendent state is called Satori.

    Now Zen is primarily a marketing term to describe a state of ease. Shama Hyder Kabani’s “the zen of social media marketing” is the latest adaptation.

    I guess I need to be a little more Zen about it.

  • David Moberg

    The worst “drift” of meaning of a word, in my opinion, is the way the word “apocalypse” is used today to mean “the end of the world” or “absolute destruction”. The original, and correct meaning was from the Greek “apokálypsis”, which would translate to: “revelation”.

  • Brimshack

    Number 1 would appear to be an etymological fallacy. As to the others, there is simply a point at which the common usage becomes the new meaning.

    Simply put, if enough people think a word has a certain meaning, then it does.

  • Stuart

    “Conservative descriptivists rail ” Surely you mean “prescriptivists”? Descriptivists — which include most modern linguists — describe English as it is; prescriptivists prescribe how they believe it ought to be.

    Please try to avoid what is known as the “etymological fallacy”. The literal meaning of a word in Latin is not the literal meaning of that same word as used in modern English.

  • Betti

    I have just realised that I may have done someone an injustice… He had offered to act as a writing mentor, but in reply to my first email to him he said “Thank you for your fulsome email…” I looked up the word ‘fulsome’ in my (clearly too old) dictionary as I wasn’t entirely sure of its meaning.

    As a result I was slightly wary of him and his opinion of me henceforth, thinking that his remark had been a backhanded criticism, when – I now realise – it was probably no such thing.

    Things never quite worked out between us and we are no longer in contact. 😮

  • venqax

    waitaminute: Only if they are talking about grammar, or the meaning of irony. Otherwise it’s just plain wrong (usually). Your comment may well be ironic, tho, given all that.

  • waitaminute

    The way most people use word #6 on this list is ironic, wouldn’t you say?

  • venqax

    and I’ve no idea why these posts keeping coming out italics.

  • venqax

    Bob, your point is well taken, but you are assuming I am making more assertions that I am. I am not suggesting that Will or SJohnson misused the words in question. I’m merely saying that the fact that the words could be used in that sense THEN does nothing to justify that use for them now. It is, in fact, ag who appealing to age and hisory as an overwhelming source of legitimacy. True, the distinction may not have important historically, and so were not made But they have BECOME important since then, and very useful.

    Regardless of whence the distinctions came between, say, uninterested and disinterested, they are useful distinctions now and should be observed by careful and conscientious, and certainly by professional, writers for that reason alone. The “wrongness” of their confusion that the anarachist ag was responding to was not simply invented by the author the post. It reflects a strong consensus that has developed among various “language people” for good reasons.

    We can say, for all intents and purposes, when reformers—including classicists—were right and when they were wrong. They were wrong when their reforms did nothing to aid communication, such as asserting pseudo-proper spellings with silent letters onto straightforward phonetic spellings in English, due to some completely unfounded notion that Latin spelling conventions were somehow relevant, let alone preferable, to English ones. Likewise imposing Latin grammar rules on English for no defensible reason. They were right when the distinctions they made improved clarity and precision. I am not saying decimate should really only mean “reduced by a tenth”, but I am saying it is good and proper to say to decimate does not mean to annihilate or to destroy totally. It means to destroy relatively little of something. THAT is a very valuable distinction. Not all prescription needs to even claim that it is based in history, merely that it is a “best use” can be sufficient.

  • Bob

    By the way… Apologies for a typo of it’s for its. The damn phone I just started using corrects “its” to “it’s” by default, and I couldn’t scrollback to proofread before submitting.

  • Bob

    @venqax – I think you missed the point of ag’s ( admittedly acerbic) post. If a misuse is as old as Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson, and it has been used by reasonably educated people for over a couple centuries, we may need to reconsider our definition of “misuse.”

    What you do not acknowledge is that quite a few of your “distinctions” were of little importance historically to most writers of English (even well-educated ones) until certain movements, in particular the classics revival of the late nineteenth century, suddenly decided to try to retrofit modern English into dead languages (particularly Latin and Greek).

    That doesn’t mean that these Classicists were “wrong,” but it does mean that they made up distinctions between “correct” and “incorrect” usage where there often was none or even where their “correct” usage went against already established trends.

    I used to think like you, and there is some part of me that still winces at supposedly “incorrect” usages. But in many of the cases you bring up here, the battle wasn’t lost long ago… There actually never was a “battle” until people like you started making up arbitrary rules. You may think they aren’t arbitrary, but why exactly is the first usage in English more correct, even when it has coexisted with another use for most of it’s lifespan in English? Why is a usage based on a dead language considered correct, even if it goes against the use of almost all speakers and many good writers of the language the word is actually part of? (“Decimate” is not Latin. It isn’t “decimatio” and we need to consider 400 years of English usage before necessarily yielding to the authority of some dead usage in a dead language.)

    I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m not saying your arguments about reducing redundancy or clarity in language aren’t noble, but the idea that they are based in some authoritative “correct” or “original” or even “lost” usage is misguided based on the same historical record you seek to draw from… At least in many instances. That’s the important point from the previous commenter. You can be prescriptivist all you want, but take care to note when your decisions are based on actual historical English usage versus some imagined Garden of Eden where no one split infinitives and everyone always used the subjunctive correctly.

  • venqax

    @mg:
    Yes, I would say confusion. What, exactly, are we supposed to infer from your list? That if a mistake is old, it’s not a mistake? That there is no useful reason to distinguish between different words that may have been used to mean the same thing—most likely by people who didn’t know any better? That with English, any prescription is merely pedantry? So it is somehow good and proper that fortuitous means the same thing as fortunate? There is no distinction between uninterested and disinterested? Enormity means enormousness because it sounds like it does? Notorious is the same as famous because we don’t need a word that makes the distinction intended by that prescriptive distinction? Your own bewilderment at the “contradiction in terms” of a “conservative descriptivist” testifies to the indefensibility of your position. How a can anything be a contradiction in terms if terms don’t have any definite meaning? Doesn’t the fact that Google—the final arbiter of all things descriptive—pulls up the term and identifies it with this blog in fact MAKE this blog “conservative descriptivist”, ipso facto, in your realm? Then you proceed to stamp with approval the taggings of misuse on ironic and literally. Why? They’ve certainly been used to mean what they don’t mean a lot and for a long time. Why don’t they get excused as stand-ins? Something has certainly been taken down a notch. Clarity and consistency for a pair.

    What is different today from the 1600s and before is that there is a large, literate class who DO take care with the language and who seek— in their best efforts—to manage its development somewhat. Likewise the geneticists who aren’t going to leave us to natural evolution any longer, if they can help it. When the literate do this among themselves, it does have some trickle-down imprint and it can be done beneficently, not just pedantically. For example, when there is a benefit to communication in 2 words meaning 2 things, instead of 2 or more superficially similar words meaning the same thing— a redundancy that serves no purpose at all. Or when there actually is a common rule of spelling or pronunciation that, if only taught and known, would remove much confusion. Not all rules are simply oppression or snobbishness These are good things for English.

  • jessiethought

    Knew disinterested. Not decimate or fortuitous. Now I can better understand the usage of “fortuitous” in the Odyssey and such works.

  • Chris

    Most of the time when I see someone say “Wow, that’s ironic,” I think “Wow, not it’s not.” It’s becoming worse than people misusing then/than.

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