Blackadder and Baldrick

10 words that don’t mean what you think they mean

Elizabeth Bromstein|

In our ongoing series of posts and grammar, spelling, punctuation, and proper word usage, we have covered a lot of ground.

This includes but is not limited to: the proper use of the their, they’re and there; the proper use of you’re and your; using “of” when you mean “have” and “literally” when you mean “figuratively”; and the bungling of common expressions like “for all intensive purposes.”

But wait! There’s more.

For a recent article, Allison VanNest of Grammarly.com shared with us the four most commonly misused/misspelled words on resumes.

To continue on that theme, we list here ten words that many people commonly misuse in everyday life and correspondence. There is a compelling argument to be made for the shifting nature of language and the fact that words take on the meaning assigned to them by those who speak them. You can decide for yourself how you feel about that. We’re just presenting the facts.

To quote Inigo Montoya: “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

Inconceivable? I don’t think so.

Irony (noun)/Ironic (adj.)

What you think it means: coincidence, strange occurrence (or, in the immortal words of Blackadder’s Baldrick “It’s like goldy and bronzy, only made of iron.”)

What it actually means: the opposite of what you would expect

Misuse: “I was just talking about getting stuck in elevators, then I got stuck in a elevator. Isn’t that ironic?”

Proper use: “This is my six-foot-eight, 400 pound deskmate, ironically named Tiny.”

Travesty (noun)

What you think it means: tragedy

What it actually means: parody, mockery, or absurd representation of something, usually used in reference to justice.

Misuse: “The company’s demise after the CEO embezzled away all the money was a travesty.”

Proper use: “Such a light sentence for such a brutal crime is a travesty of justice.”

Moot (adj.)

What you think it means: an irrelevant point, or closed question

What it actually means: open to debate, purely academic

Misuse: “The discussion over who would attend the conference became moot when the budget was cut.”

Proper use: “The argument over whose fault it was we lost the account was moot, since we couldn’t prove anything either way.”

Peruse (verb)

What you think it means: to skim, to glance over

What it actually means: to review thoroughly and thoughtfully

Misuse: “I perused the 20-page report. I think I got the gist.”

Proper use: “I perused the 20-page report. I can now explain it to you in great detail.”

Terrific (adj.)

What you think it means: great, wonderful, super

What it really means: huge, massive, causing terror

Misuse: “The weather for the office picnic was terrific!”

Proper use: “There was a terrific cyclone during the office picnic and we all had to run for cover!”

Though informal use, meaning extremely good, is generally accepted these days, it’s interesting to know. And the use of “terrific” to describe a sunny day becomes quite amusing.

Random (adj.)

What you think it means: weird, a coincidence

What it actually means: without aim, reason or pattern

Misuse: “You work here too? How random!”

Proper use: “They picked your name out of a hat? That’s a strangely random way of hiring someone.”

Ambivalent (adj.)

What you think it means: apathetic or uninterested, OR, having more than one meaning or being unclear meaning

What it actually means: having two strong opposing views, or having mixed feelings

Misuse: “I don’t care what you decide to do. I am ambivalent.”

Proper use: “I am ambivalent about whether to leave my wife for an amazing job in another city.”

Ambiguous (adj.)

What you think it means: ambivalent

What it actually means: having more than one meaning, unclear

Misuse: “I am ambiguous about whether to leave my wife for an amazing job in another city.”

Proper use: “The boss’s instructions to ‘give her cat food’ were ambiguous. I’m not sure what he wanted me to do.”

Conversate (verb?)

What you think it means: to have a conversation

What it actually means: nothing

Misuse: “We have to conversate about the plan.”

The word you’re looking for is “converse.”

Irregardless (adverb)

What you think it means: regardless

What it actually means: nothing

Misuse: “Irregardless of the fact that I think this task is stupid, I will do it because it’s my job.”

Proper use: Regardless of the fact that I think this task is stupid, I will do it because it’s my job.”


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  • http://about.me/davidalangay David Gay

    I’ve been misusing the word “terrific” all my life?

    What a terrific error on my part!

    http://about.me/davidalangay