Skip to main content Skip to header navigation

21 Words that don’t mean what you think they mean

There are a lot of words in the English language that we use every day that don’t really mean what we think. Sometimes we get lucky and dictionaries add our definitions, at least as informal uses, but if you don’t want to end up in a lengthy convo with that guy in your office who knows everything, commit these to memory.

1. Anxious

You think it means: Eager, as in being anxious to get started on a project.

It really means: While anxious does mean that you’re anticipating something, you’re doing so with a sense of foreboding or unease.

2. Ajar

You think it means: Open.

It really means: Slightly open (“slightly ajar” is redundant).

3. Bemused

You think it means: Amused.

It really means: Confused, bewildered (often to the point of amusement). Nicolas Cage often seems bemused in his movies.

4. Compel

You think it means: Action taken because it’s the right thing to do.

It really means: An action taken without choice; coercion.

5. Enormity

You think it means: Enormousness, as in “the enormity of Kanye’s ego.”

It really means: An outrageous or wicked act. It only denotes size when the size is unfathomable (which might make Kanye’s ego fair game).

6. Entitled

You think it (can) mean: The title of a book. “The book is entitled Justin Bieber: Just Getting Started.”

It really means: Believing you have a special privilege or right. Justin Bieber acts entitled, and you’re entitled to dislike him for it. A book is just titled.

7. Decimate

You think it means: To destroy or ruin completely.

It really means: Removal of a tenth. Roman commanders would execute one of every 10 soldiers to maintain discipline and loyalty.

8. Disinterested

You think it means: Uninterested or unconcerned. Apathetic.

It really means: Though uninterested and disinterested have exchanged their meanings over the centuries, disinterested best refers to someone not influenced by personal feelings or concerns, rather than just not caring.

9. Factoid

You think it means: A small fact; unimportant trivia.

It really means: Norman Mailer — who coined the term — said they were “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper,” which is to say, facts that sound credible and are repeated often but have no basis in truth.

10. Hysterical

You think it means: Hilarious.

It really means: Hysterically funny — the word draws a comparison to someone in a fit of hysteria, a disorder that causes uncontrollable attacks of emotion, often laughter. It can also refer to someone currently in a state of hysteria.

11. Infer

You think it means: Strongly suggesting the truth.

It really means: To derive a conclusion, either from evidence or implication. If I imply you’re being hysterical, you then infer that I mean you’re overreacting.

12. Inflammable

You think it means: Unable to catch fire.

It really means: Capable of being set on fire, usually burning quickly.

13. Ironic

You think it means: An annoying or funny coincidence.

It really means: Words or situations that are the opposite of what you think or are expected (not necessarily amusing). Rain on your wedding day isn’t ironic. A bride faking her death only to awaken to find her fiancé has killed himself thinking she was dead, then later killing herself (for real) is ironic. (If that example seems morbid, blame Shakespeare.)

14. Masterful

You think it means: Highly skilled.

It really means: Powerful and able to control others, not necessarily in a negative way. Masterly is more appropriate for someone who’s highly skilled.

15. Nauseated

You think it means: To feel sick.

It really means: To make someone feel sick; to fill with disgust. If something has made you feel sick, you’re nauseous.

16. Nonplussed

You think it means: Unconcerned or unperturbed.

It really means: The opposite: Surprised and confused to the point of not knowing how to react.

17. Notorious

You think it means: Well-known or famous.

It really means: Famous for a bad quality or deed. Columbus was a famous explorer. He was also arrested and taken back to Spain for tyranny; he was a notorious tyrant.

18. Peruse

You think it means: Skim.

It really means: Read or examine carefully and thoroughly.

19. Travesty

You think it means: A tragedy.

It really means: A false, absurd or distorted version of something.

20. Tortuous

You think it means: Feels as though you’re being tortured.

It really means: Full of twists and turns, complex. If you feel you’re being tortured, it’s torturous.

21. Unique

You think it means: Special. Her purple hair is so unique.

It really means: The only one (or one of few) of its kind. It may be special, but since lots of people dye their hair purple, it’s not unique.

Source: Merriam-Webster — please note that Webster does make exceptions for some of the colloquial definitions herein, but avoiding them will save you from the grammar police.

This post is brought to you by GSN, home of the brainteaser show Idiotest. Tune in to the premiere on April 1, and play along with their online game.

More vocabulary challenges

How good is your vocabulary? (QUIZ)
25 Words that are their own opposites
40 Southern phrases explained

Leave a Comment

Comments are closed.