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26 Words That Do Not Mean What You Think They Do

Updated on February 11, 2016

The English-speaking world is riddled with people using words they think mean something they don't. Not only is it highly annoying, but this misuse continues to perpetuate the incorrect usage exponentially and decimate the proper use of English. Ironic, isn't it? Or is it? Let's face it - we've all probably used at least one of these words incorrectly. Let's take a look at the main culprits and see how we should be using them.



What people think it means: Adding emphasis to a statement.

Most people use this to add emphasis to what they are saying. I overheard someone say," This Christmas season at work is incredibly busy. The clothes are literally flying off the shelves." Unless the clothes are growing wings and taking to the sky, we know this can't be true.

What it actually means: Something that is actually, really true. "He literally pushed me out the door."

If you are speaking in a non-literal sense, you would use "figuratively," but that doesn't sound nearly as natural: "The clothes figuratively flew off the shelves." Right? Unfortunately, the use of literal for figurative has become so common these days, that even the Oxford English Dictionary had to change its definition of literally to adapt to the common usage:

"Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling."

This addition is not literally a tragedy, but it is literally in the dictionary. Still, in an interview in The Daily Mail, OED senior editor Fiona McPherson stated, "The only reason this sense is included is because people are using it the wrong way." So let's start using it correctly.


What people may think it means: They mean the same thing.

What it really means: To infer is to form an opinion based on evidence and reasoning. The listener infers.To imply is to suggest something indirectly.

I did not mean to imply that it was your fault.

He inferred from her tone that she was angry..

What is she implying? What is he inferring?
What is she implying? What is he inferring?


What people may think it means: The same thing.

What it really means: The palate is not only the roof of the mouth but also a person’s ability to recognize different flavors. A palette, on the other hand, is the flat board an artist uses to mix paints.

At the 12-course dinner, sorbet was served between the courses to cleanse the palate.

A person can often be described as having "a discerning palate," which means they can tell the difference between different flavors of food or drink, which comes in handy if you are a chef or wine taster.

Palate can also mean the taste of something - wine, for example:

The palate has apple, smoke, and the cheeky taste of fried bubblegum.

In addition to an artist's equipment, palette can also mean a range of colors:

Many people visit Vermont in the fall to enjoy nature's autumn pallette.



What people may think it means: To reject or deny something.

What it really means: To prove to be false, as in a statement or opinion.

The man denied he had killed his wife. This means he said he didn't do it.

The man refuted the allegation that he'd killed his wife. In this case, the man followed in the footsteps of Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive and cleared his name, proving he hadn't committed the crime he was erroneously accused of.

I will refute this allegation.
I will refute this allegation. | Source


What people may think it means: Not happening very often.

What it really means: Something that is constant; unchanging.

The plant invariably grows in dense, wooded areas since it cannot survive in any other environment.

Many writers will invariably be confused on the correct usage of confusing words.


What people may think it means: Very quick growth.

What it really means: An increase in the rate of growth. Something is growing exponentially when its rate of change can be described using an exponent, such as 103

Let's be clear - the growth of Syrian refugees is not "increasing exponentially," as the BBC News reported recently. This would mean that that there is a clear, mathematical increase of a factor of five, or three, for example. The amount of the change in numbers is not a constant percentage. What the announcer meant that the number is rapidly growing. Better words to use would be explosive or accelerated. Rapid is also fine.

However, if a company is doubling their profits every year, this would count as exponential.

Now, that's exponential



What people may think it means: Amused or entertained.

I was amused by the latest cat meme on my Facebook page.

What it really means: Confused, bewildered; granted, this can often be to the point of amusement, but it doesn't have to be.

I was bemused by his sudden decision to join the circus; I hoped he would reconsider.

Bemused by the beard.
Bemused by the beard. | Source
Amused by the beard.
Amused by the beard. | Source


What people may think it means: The title of a book. The book she wanted was entitled, The Care and Feeding of Small, Cute Cats.

Use titled instead.

Keeping up with the Downton Abbey viewers - titled can also mean "having a noble title". I had the most delightful lunch with a titled lady whose name I cannot yet reveal.

A caveat: Technically, entitled can also mean named (as in a publication); however, this usage is becoming archaic and more commonly used in the following way:

What it really means: to have the right to something.

By state law, she was entitled to half of his earnings in the divorce settlement.


What people may think it means: The absolute center

What it really means: The point on the earth’s surface where an earthquake originates (and usually the location of the most damage)




What people may think it means: Special. Her blue hair is so unique.

What it really means: The only one (or one of few) of its kind. It may be special but hardly unique since many people dye their hair blue.

Unique? | Source
Not so much.
Not so much. | Source
OK, her blue hair is unique but only because it belongs to the last unicorn.
OK, her blue hair is unique but only because it belongs to the last unicorn. | Source


People may think it means: Cannot catch fire.

What it really means: Easily set on fire.

Huh. That could cause problems.

Inflammable drinks
Inflammable drinks | Source


What people may think it means: The same thing.

What it really means: Reign means "royal rule or authority". To reign is to hold royal office.

During the king's reign, there was peace and prosperity in the kingdom.

Reins are leather straps attached to a bridle in order to guide or restrain a horse. The expressions "free rein" (freedom of movement or action') and "rein (someone or something) in" (control or restrain) originate from the use of the horse's reins.

Rein it in, boys.
Rein it in, boys. | Source


What people may think it means: A fun fact.

What it really means: A fun "fact" that has been made up.

Norman Mailer, who is responsible for coining the term, called factoids "facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or a newspaper." Add internet, and you now have a modern day definition, which means facts that may appear credible but are not true. It can also be taken further, as many factoids today are obviously untrue and created strictly for entertainment purposes.

And that's a fact.

Fun? Yes.  Fact?  Nah.
Fun? Yes. Fact? Nah. | Source


What people may think it means: Hilarious.

What it really means: someone who is experiencing a fit of hysteria— an uncontrollable attack of emotion which can include laughter.

The father became hysterical when his child did not arrive home from school.

To the Victorians, hysteria was a woman's problem.
To the Victorians, hysteria was a woman's problem. | Source


What people may think it means: To get an electric shock.

What it really means: To injure or kill by electric shock.

The convicted serial killer was electrocuted at midnight.

The student who was walking in the storm was electrocuted.

What you think it means...
What you think it means... | Source
... what it really means.
... what it really means. | Source



What people may think it means: Highly skilled.

What is really means: Powerful and able to control others, not necessarily in a negative way. Masterly is a better word for someone who's highly skilled.

More this...
More this... | Source
...than this. He is masterly, though.
...than this. He is masterly, though. | Source


What people may think it means: enormous in size

You can use enormousness to describe the quality of enormous; even though it's correct, it sounds really weird. Find some other way to write it.

The enormousness of the alien mothership caused the citizens to cringe with fear.

What it really means: monstrous or evil

She was shocked into silence by the enormity of his crime.

"Enormousness!" squeaks the chihuahua.
"Enormousness!" squeaks the chihuahua. | Source
This would work for both definitions.
This would work for both definitions. | Source


What people may think it means: Unconcerned; not bothered.

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

When she was questioned at the debate, the politician seemed nonplussed and could not answer.

She was nonplussed when the host and hostess began to argue at the dinner table.



What people may think it means: to feel sick to the point of vomiting

The candidate's position on immigration nauseated me.

What It really means: To make someone feel sick; to fill with disgust.

If something has made you feel sick, you're nauseous.

I have to go home; I'm feeling nauseous.

Kind of nauseating, really.
Kind of nauseating, really. | Source


What people may think it means: a lot of something.

What it really means: too much of something

Can you have a plethora of money? Can you ever have too much money? This term is always used in a negative sense. If you have too much of something, you have a plethora of something.

There has been a plethora of books written about vampires in love.

A plethora of pumpkins?
A plethora of pumpkins? | Source
Can you ever really have too many rubber duckies?
Can you ever really have too many rubber duckies? | Source


What people may think it means: Feels as though you're being tortured.

What it really means: Containing many twists and turns, complex.

I almost didn't finish the tortuous novel; it was really difficult to follow.

If you feel you're being tortured, it's torturous.

I had a torturous day at work.

tortuous road
tortuous road | Source


What you may think it means: to hold a conversation

What it actually means: a recently created word mixing conversation and converse

If you have a conversation with someone, you converse (or talk). Thanks to reality TV and the Internet, many people use this as if it were a real word. This does not mean you should.

What she said.
What she said. | Source


What people may think it means: to willingly do something, to feel like you need to do something

What it really means: to be forced to do something; to have no choice

I was compelled by the judge to give the information.

If you have a choice or desire to do something, use impelled.

I was impelled to start eating a healthier diet.

She really, really doesn't want to.
She really, really doesn't want to. | Source



What people may think it means: repetitive

What it really means: no longer needed or useful; superfluous

When I assembled my futon, I found a redundant piece.

Is"a blank sheet of paper" redundant?

If you're a fan of BBC TV, you may also be aware of the phrase "to be made redundant," which in American English means "to be let go" or "downsized"

Just in case you couldn't figure it out.
Just in case you couldn't figure it out. | Source


What people may think it means: drastically reduced or destroyed completely.

What it really means: Removal of a tenth. This stems from the Romans, when, after a rebellion, one out of every ten men would be executed.

Unfortunately, this is a word that is becoming common usage for "utterly destroyed" - it seems to be a losing battle to see it used correctly.



What you (or Alanis Morissette) may think it means: an annoying coincidence

What it really means: Something that happens opposite to what is expected or perceived.

This can be a tough one because there are many definitions of irony. The simplest (which probably isn't the best term for this complex term) way to think about it is when a something happens that is very different from what is expected or the perception is different from the reality.

I have to write an example of irony but don't know the definition.

It is ironic that the police would need help themselves.

There were ironic cheers from the fans whose team had lost the game.

Examples of dramatic irony can be found in literature, film, and song (but not that song).Rain on a wedding day? Nope. But - a young bride who fakes her death, wakes up and thinks her fiancé has committed suicide because he thought she was dead, and then kills herself as a result? Definitely ironic.

Rain on your wedding day? How ironic. No, it's just an annoying coincidence.
Rain on your wedding day? How ironic. No, it's just an annoying coincidence.

The most infamous use ever


Now, that's ironic


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    • ghalkett profile imageAUTHOR

      Genevieve Halkett 

      3 years ago from Dayton, Ohio

      Shelfy-thanks, I'm glad you liked it. Thanks for the feedback; I'll add a little to that section.

      Aesta - Great! Yeah, just getting used to using the words help keep them in the memory-and meaning what they really mean. Thanks for reading.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      This is really useful. I have to make sure I remember the words and what they really mean.

    • Shelfy profile image


      3 years ago

      Fantastic article (get it?). I initially read just to soak in the jokes, but I ended up learning about "Factoid", which I had been ignorant of until today.

      You might want to clarify the nauseous/nauseated portion with a few extra examples.


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