10 Words That Do Not Mean What You Think They Mean.

Words can be deceiving sometimes, especially that the English language, or any language for that matter, is always evolving. There are words that confuse the logic out of our nerdy heads because we thought they meant something but in fact, they mean a completely different thing. So here is a list of some of the words that do not mean what you think they mean.


Bemused

If you think bemused means the same thing as amused, you’re absolutely wrong. And if you are someone who is reading this for the first time, you might be confused. And that’s exactly what bemused means: confused.

Disinterested

Disinterested does not mean uninterested, at all. So, if you find a movie to be boring and a waste of your time, you are uninterested, not disinterested. Disinterested means that you don’t have any stake in the outcome because you’re not invested in something. The two words are used interchangeably a lot these days that they have become synonymous, but it is a distinction that style guides are keen to maintain.


Electrocute

Ever accidentally stick your finger in an electrical outlet and get electrocuted? Well, you were not electrocuted unless you died after the accident and got buried, you just got a mild electric shock. Because the word electrocute means to kill or execute someone with an electric shock. Remember the electric chair to help you make the distinction. 

Factoid

Factoid is not synonymous with fact. The word factoid is a relatively new word that was coined by Norman Mailer in 1973, and unlike most people who use the word today, he meant for it to mean fake news that people believe just because they’ve seen it written somewhere. So, a factoid is not a fun trivia fact, it’s a tabloid. 


Nonplussed

This is a word that is often misused because of its deceptive nature. Unlike what most people think, it does not mean ‘not bothered’. Nonplussed means confounded and perplexed and as such derives from the Latin expression non plus which literally means no more. So, if you are nonplussed you may be in a situation in which you are so bewildered and confused that you can’t take no more. 

Plethora

Plethora does not mean a ‘lot of‘. Strictly speaking, it means ‘too much of‘ or an ‘overabundance of‘. This makes perfect sense from an etymological point of view as plethora was originally a medical term meaning 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.


Peruse

We often hear people saying they are perusing a newspaper or a magazine in the sense that they are browsing it. Please, people, stop saying that! Peruse does not mean browse. In fact, it means the opposite. When you peruse something, you study it thoroughly and in great detail.

Regularly 

Regularly is not synonymous with often, nor is it with frequently. If something happens often, it does not mean it happens regularly and vice versa. When something happens regularly, it happens at regular, ordered intervals or in a predictable, uniform way. 


Luxuriant 

Because it sounds like luxurious, most people assume they mean the same thing, naaah! If something is luxuriant is not necessarily expensive. Instead, it is lushoverblown, or prolifically overabundant

Refute

Refute and deny are not the same. If you say “I refute that”, you don’t mean that you merely deny or refuse it, it means you can prove it to be false. 


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23 thoughts on “10 Words That Do Not Mean What You Think They Mean.”

  1. Yeah, the ‘disinterested’ / ‘uninterested’ really grinds my gears as does the random interchanging of ‘continuous(ly)’ and ‘continual(ly)’.

  2. Another one that has come back recently is “enervate,” – to cause (someone) to feel drained of energy or vitality; weaken. – I still see it used as a synonym for “energize,” which is exactly the opposite of its true meaning.

  3. Or it’s a lost cause trying to change. If only a minority knows the true meaning of these words, then the majority’s use will prevail.

    That being said, it’s increasingly acceptable to use “amount” or “less” when referring to more than one countable noun. Eg. A large amount of people came. We have a large amount of things to attend to. I have less books than them.

    All hail living, evolving language!

    1. ‘Less books than them’ is incorrect – grammatically correct, it should read ‘less books than they (have)’.

        1. I say ‘fewer books’. But if we’re treating something as an amount rather than a countable quantity, we still tend to use (and accept) ‘less’. ‘I have less time.’ I know exactly how much time I have, but I’m treating it as a pourable amount, as it were. However, the old annoyance of ’15 items or less’ is one of those things where one thinks, ‘Why, oh why? You’ve literally just counted them’.

  4. Excellent list and I was pleased to find I’ve only fallen for a couple of these!
    In my circles a word that has flipped its meaning is the word “prodigal.” Few Bible believers I know use this word to mean “lavish” or “excessive spending.” Instead they use it to mean “wayward” or “rebellious.”
    Ironically, in the story of “The Prodigal Son” (which isn’t the biblical title, but added by commentators) both the wayward son and his forgiving father are prodigals as they spend their funds extravagantly to show what they delight in.

    1. Cheri,
      You are spot on! Most believe it is simply a wayward soul that has (thankfully) found a way back to the loving care of his father (or Father in the scriptural reference or metaphor).

  5. I’ve noticed that people use the word “debate” to mean “decide”. For example “I was debating whether or not to wear the tie to the job interview”. But debate is something two or more people engage in to prove an argument, rather than do make up one’s own mind about something. In fact, to debate you must already be thoroughly convinced of one specific point of view.

    1. I disagree. You can debate with yourself if you are convinced that two different things are both possible. For example, if you have a blue tie and a green tie, you can debate with yourself which tie is better to wear.

  6. “Aggravate” does not mean to make something or someone bad. It has to already be bad, then something aggravates it, making it worse.

  7. Top of the list should be “decimate”.

    It is, of course, a unique word meaning “to reduce by 10%”. But so many know-nothings have used it in error to be yet another synonym for “devastate”, “obliterate” or “eliminate”, that the erroneous meaning is now listed in some dictionaries. I guess that if enough people started referring to giraffes as Sputniks, those same dictionaries would list that error as a new meaning for the word.

    1. Yes, they will David, and this has been happening for as long as we can tell back in time. Might be time for a read of Accidence Will Happen by Oliver Kamm.

      1. At least you said “unique,” and not “very unique.” That one is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

        1. Want to watch my 7-year-old grandson’s backbone straighten up when he hears “very unique?” A lecture follows. And then he throws out “penultimate!”Also good for a “huh?” It’s all in the hands of a vigil grandma!

  8. “May not mean what I think they mean?” Speak for other people. I knew all of them.

    Then I read the comments and it turned into peevers’ paradise. Yeah, I know that some people correct “less” to “fewer” . So what? I still use “less” because it doesn’t really matter. What grates more is when people use “fewer” when they should use “less” — e.g. “$150 is $50 fewer than $200”. The only reason people make this kind of stupid mistake is because they don’t really understand the rule, just the shibboleth.

  9. Peruse, actually has two definitions that mean the exact opposite of each other. So people can continue to use it the way they always have since it also means to look over quickly.

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