25 Words You Probably Don’t Really Misuse
Why do language aficionados take such delight in telling people they are using words wrong¹? The more I learn about language, the less dogmatic I become. And the less dogmatic I become the less irritating I become to those around me — I hope.
I know I’m much less bothered by people who fail to use conventional grammar and diction. That’s good. It makes me a generally happier person. But the flip side is that my ire instead gets kindled by pedants who demean the average English speaker for making what they consider errors. It’s not just the smugness that bothers me, mind you. It’s the smugness coupled with simple ignorance.
The article I’ve linked to above is an excellent example. It is mostly nonsense, but, as of today, it’s been shared at least 40,000 times via social media. It was written by a college student named Joseph Hindy, and kudos to him for penning an article that’s generated so much traffic. I’d love it if something I’d written got that much attention. I also commend him for adopting a gracious tone. He doesn’t mock those who “misuse” the words he lists, which makes his article easier to take than others like it.
It just troubles me that the article is devoid of any citations. Don’t they teach that in college? Mr. Hindy speaks with confidence on the “correct” definitions of words, but offers no authoritative support for his contentions. He doesn’t even reference any dictionaries. We are just to take his word for it that “terrific” means “horrific” and not “good.” But he’s wrong about most of these and a simple perusal of a dictionary or two will prove my case.
Let’s look at a few examples.
People are confused about this word. But the article suggests that people think it means “funny.” I don’t know anyone who uses the word synonymously with “funny.” Sticklers insist that irony be used exclusively for situations in which what happens is the opposite of what would be expected in way that is either tragic or comic. They complain when people use it for things that are simply surprising or unfortunate. They would say that it’s not necessarily ironic that it rains on someone’s wedding day unless the bride intentionally chose the date and location because it had the least chance of rain.
I won’t comment on the proper use of “irony” here. I just want to point out that Mr. Hindy doesn’t seem to grasp the literal way people use and/or misuse the word.
As with most of the words on this list, Hindy points to an original definition and claims that any other use of the word is incorrect. But though “ultimate,” derived from the Greek and first used in the 17th century³, originally meant “the last or final” or “most distant in time or space,” Merriam-Webster and other dictionaries now list an additional definition: “the greatest, best, or most extreme.”
The popular sports Ultimate Frisbee and ultimate fighting both make use of this latter definition. They are not in any sense named “incorrectly.”
“Peruse” is an odd word that has over time taken on a definition that is roughly the opposite of its original meaning. Linguists have termed this phenomenon a contronym — a word that can be used as its own opposite.
“Peruse” once meant “to examine or read carefully.” It now more commonly means “to look at or read casually or informally.” How this happens is hard to explain, but it is far from uncommon. We are seeing the same metamorphosis with the word “literally” (#22 on the list). The definition has historically been “exactly; precisely; really” but has been used emphatically to mean “figuratively” for so long that dictionaries are now listing “figuratively” as a secondary, though hotly debated, definition of the word.
Without belaboring the point, the article is clearly wrong about “nauseous,” “enormity,” “terrific,” “decimate,” “fortuitous,” “plethora,” “can,” and “obsolete.” In all these examples, popular dictionaries list as optional definitions the usages Hindy declares wrong. In other cases, like “irregardless” and “literally,” the issue is more nuanced than he indicates. And, in other cases, his examples of misuse don’t seem all that common (does anyone really use “compelled” to mean “to do something voluntarily”?).
I don’t mean to pick on Hindy. I doubt he put all that much effort into this article, and it’s not his fault that readers have taken it as gospel and disseminated it around the internet. I blame the gullible readers who are oddly eager to correct their neighbor’s vocabulary. It’s that group I’d like to address:
Nobody owns words and nobody has been granted ultimate authority to judge the correctness of our diction. Let’s be slow to correct one another on how we use words out of simple politeness, and if the situation demands it, at least do your homework and be sure you are right about what the rest of us get “wrong.”
¹If you think “wrong” should be “wrongly,” you are probably the kind of person this article is aimed at².
²If you are bothered by the fact that I just ended a sentence with a preposition, you are definitely the kind of person at whom this article is aimed.
³According to the OED online.