10 words that might not mean what you think they do

‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.’ Inconceivable? Read on…

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These 10 words have shifted their senses over the years. In some cases, we are wise to likewise be flexible; in others, we relax our vocabulary at the expense of useful distinctions:

1. Decimate

The literal meaning of this word, as all you lovers of Latin (not to be confused with Latin lovers) know all too well, is “to reduce by one-tenth,” supposedly from the punitive custom of selecting one out of 10 captives by lot and killing those so selected. But the senses for this Rhadamanthine Roman policy have proliferated, so that now it means “tithed,” “drastically reduced,” or “destroyed” as well.

2. Disinterested

Commonly employed to mean “not interested,” disinterested has a precise, useful meaning of “neutral, unbiased.”

3. Enormity

Some people would reserve this word to mean “monstrously wicked,” but, in truth, it is properly invoked to refer to anything overwhelming or an unexpected event of great magnitude, and thus it need not be invariably corrected to enormousness except when it is clearly in reference to a loathsome occurrence.

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