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

By Mark Nichol

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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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55 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.


    One thing that bugs me in people who say “2a.m. in the morning.” A.M. is morning

  • Eulalie Marshall

    I have been under the impression that the word “may “ indicates permission whereas the word “might” indicates possibility. You titled this article, “10 Words That Don’t Mean What You May Think They Do”. Is my interpretation of the words “may” and “might” incorrect?

  • J.Hill

    “There’s a delicious feel in the mouth and a pleasurable sound to the ear when words are pronounced with elegance and style. ” When a verb is used as a noun, ing is added to the word to form a gerund. The word, feel, is a verb. Feeling is a gerund, the noun.

  • Dave

    I’m about a decade late to the game here, but does anyone else see something not quite right in the “peruse” item?

    The text has “careful steady or attentive reading,” but I feel “steady” should be “study.”

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