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24 Words That Don’t Mean What You Think They Do

Have you ever heard someone say, "I was literally scared to death?" That's impossible because the dead can't talk. Even educated people make these common mistakes—make sure you know the real meaning of these words.

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LiterallyPhoto: Shutterstock

Literally

The word “literally” is literally one of the most misused words in the English language. It’s often used as a way to emphasize something that happened: “I literally died laughing.” The word actually refers to something that actually happened, without exaggeration, such as, “The tornado that came through literally destroyed every house in its path.”

Can you pass this quiz of 4th grade spelling words?

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Peruse

Many people believe that the word “peruse” means to read something quickly. In fact, the opposite is true: Peruse means to “read with thoroughness or care.” Used correctly, you would say, “I spent at least an hour perusing this report so that I fully understood it.”

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Terrific

This word is one of the words in the English language that has become completely disconnected from its origin. It’s often used as a compliment or to describe a good feeling: “That outfit looks terrific!” or “I slept great and feel terrific today!” However, the origin and proper meaning of the word is completely different, and means “very bad” or “exciting fear”—it does sound like terror, after all. You might hear something like, “I just saw an absolutely terrific accident on my way home from work,” which would sound strange in modern language.

Check out these words you never realized were examples of onomatopoeia.

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Ambivalent

Most people think that the term ambivalent means that you don’t care about something. In fact, the word means that you have contradictory or mixed feelings about a subject matter—not that you’re apathetic. Used correctly, you could say, “I’m feeling quite ambivalent about where I want to go on vacation this year. I can’t decide whether I want to go to the mountains or the beach.”

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Irregardless

The word “irregardless” is a grammar stickler’s pet peeve—there is no such word. That’s right. While it’s popular in certain dialects, “irregardless” simply doesn’t exist in the English language. The word that you’re looking for is “regardless,” as in, “Regardless of the cost, they said they’re going to have a destination wedding.”

These English words have totally different meanings in other languages.

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DisinterestedPhoto: Shutterstock

Disinterested

The word “disinterested” is another misunderstood word in the English language. While many people believe that the word means that you’re simply not interested, the original meaning of “disinterested” refers to a lack of bias or being fair and impartial: “We needed a disinterested judge to decide this case.” To indicate that you’re indifferent about something, you should use the word “uninterested.”

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BemusedPhoto: Shutterstock

Bemused

People sometimes use the word “bemused” in place of “amused,” but the two words are not synonyms. In fact, bemused means that you’re confused or bewildered: “My friend really likes this movie, but the complicated plot left me bemused.”

These words mean the opposite of what you think.

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Grizzly

When you hear the word “grizzly,” you probably think of the bear—ferocious and wild. However, the term “grizzly” means gray or gray-haired (unless it comes before “bear”). The proper word to describe something that inspires horror or fear is “grisly:” “That horror movie had a grisly scene, which I hope I never see again.”

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Entitled

While most people know that the word “entitled” refers to the rights that a person has (sometimes with a negative connotation, like “entitled brat”), others use it to describe the actual title of a book or movie, which is not standard English. To use the term properly, you would say, “After his great uncle died, he learned that he was entitled to half of the estate,” and only use the term “titled” to refer to movies, books, and the like.

Check out these Latin words that will make you sound smarter.

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Electrocute

People often use “electrocute” to mean “shocked,” when the actual definition means “to kill with electricity:” It’s a blend of “electro” and “execution.” The origin of the word, which was coined in the 1880s, means that a shock is fatal: “The prisoner was put to death by electrocution.”

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Irony

This commonly misused word isn’t a synonym for coincidence. Some people think that it refers to a situational randomness—such as, “Isn’t it ironic that we’re both here on the same day?” Ironic (and irony) actually refers to the opposite of what you expect to happen. “You know what’s ironic? Our pilot has a fear of heights!”

Check out these simple words you’re probably pronouncing wrong.

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Impeach

This doesn’t mean “toss the bum out,” despite what you may’ve heard. The standard definition is to bring charges against a person, which may or may not lead to his or her removal. For instance: “The senator was impeached because of misconduct, but was allowed to return to office.”

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Pristine

This word is often used to refer to a room or environment that is sparkling clean. However, the true meaning of the word is “not spoiled or altered” (such as by civilization), meaning that the area is in its original state. For example, “This undiscovered beach is in pristine condition!”

Even smart people mispronounce these 17 words.

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Refute

The word “refute” is often used as a synonym for rebut or deny, such as: “I refute the insinuation that I lied.” The real definition? “To prove wrong by argument or evidence.” Used properly, you could say, “The lawyer refuted the defendant’s claims by presenting several witnesses who saw him at the scene.”

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Misused wordsPhoto: Shutterstock

Dilemma

While most people understand that the word “dilemma” involves making a difficult choice, the standard definition is to make a choice between two unfavourable options. Therefore, saying something like, “I have a dilemma: Do I want to eat the donut or the pie?” is incorrect. The proper use of the word has a much more negative connotation: “The prisoner was faced with a tough dilemma: should he accept the jail time, or turn in his friends?”

Don’t miss these 11 other adjectives that everyone should use more often.

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Fewer/Less

The words “fewer” and “less” are often used interchangeably, but they have separate meanings. The term “fewer” refers to an actual amount you can count, such as, “The little girl received two fewer pieces of candy than her brother.” If you can’t count the items in question, then use the word “less”: “That glass holds less water than that pitcher.”

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Concerning

The meaning word “concerning” is often confused with a similar-sounding word, “disconcerting.” An upsetting situation or action is “disconcerting,” but “concerning” only means you’re referencing someone or something. You talk with a teacher concerning your child because his behavior has been disconcerting. In other words, saying “His behaviour is quite concerning,” is incorrect.

Here are 19 words you never realized are the same backwards and forwards.

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Momentarily

While many people use the word “momentarily” to mean “in a moment,” the definition of the word is “for a moment.” In other words, if you tell someone, “I’ll see you momentarily,” it means that you’ll only be seeing them for a minute or two, not that you’ll be seeing them in a minute or two. Used properly, you would say, “We momentarily lost power in our house when the storm passed through.”

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Enormity

Because it resembles “enormous,” many people think that the origin of the word “enormity” refers to a very large object or situation. However, the word actually means “great evil or wickedness.” And here’s a fun fact: “Enormous” also used to mean “an evil or wickedness” up until the 19th century, and the definition of the word “enormity” seems to be evolving as well. If you want to be a grammar purist and use the term properly, you would say something like, “The enormity of the vicious crime was shocking to the entire community.”

Which famous authors coined these common English words?

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Conversate

Like “irregular” and “irregardless,” conversate isn’t a word; it’s listed as “non-standard” in the dictionary, meaning that it doesn’t conform to standard language. People use it in place of “converse”: “The girls wanted to conversate with me about which concert they wanted to see.” However, if you want to be grammatically correct, remove the word from your lexicon and simply say “converse.”

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Factoid

Many people believe that a “factoid” is a small snippet of information, such as a piece of trivia—and the word is evolving to mean that. But the original definition of the word “factoid” is a made-up fact that was believed to be true because it appeared in print—a combination of the word “fact” and “-oid” (a suffix that means “resembling,”—think: humanoid.) More accurate use would be, “That politician was spewing factoids about his opponent, even though none of his claims have been substantiated.”

For more factoids, check out this list of 51 facts that are actually false.

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Nauseous

If you’re feeling queasy, you probably don’t care about definitions. However, the word “nauseous” is one of the most commonly misused words in the English language. The definition of the word “nauseous” actually means “causing nausea,” while its linguistic relative, “nauseated,” means that you’re feeling or suffering from nausea. So if you tell people that you’re feeling nauseous, you actually mean that you’re causing others to feel sick (which may or may not be true). Used properly, you would say, “That burrito I just ate is making me feel nauseated.”

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Misnomer

Some people use the word “misnomer” as a synonym of “misconception”—a mistaken idea. However, the definition is “an error in naming a person or thing.” In fact, using the word “misnomer” to describe a mistake is a misnomer in itself. For example: “The term ‘koala bear’ is a misnomer; they’re not bears at all—they’re marsupials!”

This is the reason some English words have silent letters.

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Ultimate

While the meaning of the word “ultimate” has evolved to mean “the best,” the Latin origin of the word refers to the last in a list of items. To use the word properly at this moment: “The word ‘ultimate’ is the ultimate word on this list!”

Next, here are six words women universally hate.

Originally Published on Reader's Digest