‘Look it up in the dictionary!’ – That’s what my mother always told me when I ran across a word I didn’t understand. Good advice, yes? But this was before the internet, and lugging that hefty volume off the shelf wasn’t nearly as appealing as doing the next best thing—guessing at the meaning according to the context of the sentence. And that seemed good enough.
I’ve been doing the same thing for years when it comes to the spoken word. I adopted words I liked, heard often on television, from friends, on the university campus, and read in books, assuming I knew what they meant. They sound right. They’re fun to say. I use them the way others do. The only problem is—I think they mean something they don’t. Take a look at this list of commonly misunderstood words and see if you’ve made some faulty assumptions, too. You might be surprised!
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You think it means: enormous in size (enormousness)
It means: monstrous evil, excessive wickedness, outrageousness
The enormity of Hitler’s crimes against humanity must be told, without fail, to future generations.
You think it means: unaffected, unimpressed
It means: bewildered, extremely puzzled, at a loss
The groom was nonplussed when the bride didn’t show up for the wedding.
You think it means: mildly amused
It means: to be bewildered, confused, engrossed in thought
The state representative was bemused by the rapid volley of questions from the audience regarding his plans for eliminating debt.
You think it means: “useless” or “unable to perform its function”
It means: beyond what is necessary or natural, needlessly wordy or repetitive
The student’s paper, filled with redundant phrases, demonstrated how little research he’d actually done on the subject.
You think it means: to have a lot of something, many
It means: superabundance, an excess (has transitioned from a negative to positive connotation over time)
The plethora of plastics and unwillingness to recycle will have negative consequences for the environment.
You think it means: unusual, extraordinary (often used with very/ rather/ quite)
It means: the only one of its kind, unparalleled
That ancient manuscript is unique and should be on display at the Smithsonian.
You think it means: abundant (praise)
It means: offensively flattering or insincere
The woman’s fulsome manner was off-putting to the CEO, who made a mental note to avoid her at company functions.
You think it means: noisy
It means: obnoxious, harmful, offensive to senses
The noisome fumes of the sewer wafted through the cobbled streets of old London.
You think it means: any kind of amusing coincidence.
It means: the opposite (outcome) of what was expected, contrary to expectation
I found it ironic that someone who didn’t study for the final made the highest grade in the class.
You think: it’s an intensifier, used to emphasize a point; synonym for really or actually; often used in place of “figuratively”
It means: in a literal manner; word for word
The NASB is considered a literal translation from the original languages. (as in, word for word)
Don’t take my words literally. (as in, a literal sense)
For kicks, count how many times you hear (or see) one of these most misunderstood words. Listen especially for “literally,” and when you do, let an image form in your head of what’s literally happening–it’s sure to make you smile.
For those who prefer practice, here are some exercises.