Words that don’t mean what you think they mean

“That word—I do not think it means what you think it means.”

–Inigo Montoya, “The Princess Bride”

Writer Suzannah Windsor Freeman posted on her blog in November 2009 several adjectives that have lost all meaning and sense of perspective in modern usage. One of the most common is awesome, which today means “very good,” as in breathtaking, amazing and awe-inspiring. In the past, awesome meant inspiring fear or reverence. Angels were awesome, as were earthquakes, gothic cathedrals, solar eclipses and so on. It’s safe to say that compared to those things, Lady GaGa is not awesome.

Another of Freeman’s example is the word incredible. In modern usage the word also has the connotation of “very good, fantastic, or fabulous” while traditional usage defines it as less-than-credible or lacking credibility. Flying elephants are incredible. Alibis can be incredible. Witnesses or newspaper reports can be incredible. Can brownies be incredible? (I’ve yet to meet a desert I didn’t trust.)

Here are some more:.

  • Literally. “I’m literally dying of thirst.” You’re probably not, but you may be doing so figuratively
  • Unique. Something is either unique or it isn’t. One singer can’t be more unique than another one. So saying, “Madonna was the most unique singer of the decade” is like saying someone is “a little pregnant.” The same goes for…
  • Perfect. It’s either perfect or it’s not, and there’s no such thing as “more perfect.”
  • Ironic. This misused word was made famous by Alanis Morisette’s song of the same name which, ironically, contained no irony, just a lot of unfortunate coincidences.  A circumstance is ironic if it is the opposite of what’s expected, not if it’s a bummer. “It was ironic that the ship survived the storm at sea only to sink in the harbor.” (although that’s a bummer, too…)
  • Mad. As Chris Rock once said, “Whatever happened to crazy?” If you’re mad, you have poor mental health. You’re not angry, although a temper tantrum may make one look mad.
  • Appalled. Appalled shares a root with pallor, which means a white, ghostly complexion. To be appalled is to be so affected by something that it drains the blood from your skin. I don’t think as many of us are as appalled as we think we are.
  • Practically. This means the opposite of theoretical, not “almost.” This is correct: “While the military’s new jet plane performed well in computer testing, it was practically useless on the battlefield.” This is incorrect: “I was practically killed on the way home.”

These are just a few examples. Readers, feel free to post more from your own experiences!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *