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…


As English evolves, word meanings shift and turn, sometimes reversing themselves altogether.

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.

Refrain, however, from diluting the word’s impact in such usage as, “The enormity of the new stadium struck them as they approached the towering entrance.”

4. Fortuitous

This word means “occurring by chance,” but its resemblance to fortune has given it an adopted sense of “lucky.”

For meticulous adherence to the traditional meaning, use fortuitous only in the sense indicated in this sentence: “His arrival at that moment was fortuitous, because her note had not specified the exact time of her departure.” Nothing in the context qualifies his arrival as fortunate; the sentence merely states that he arrived in time without knowing that he would do so.

The informal meaning is expressed here: “His fortuitous arrival at that very moment enabled him to intercept the incriminating letter.” In this sentence, the time of his appearance is identified as a lucky stroke.

5. Fulsome

This term originally meant “abundant, generous, full,” but that sense was rendered obsolete when the word acquired a negative connotation of “offensive, excessive, effusive.”

Conservative descriptivists rail against the use of fulsome in a positive sense, but the cold, hard fact is that this sense has been increasingly resurgent for many years, and the adulatory meaning is now much more common than the condemnatory one.

If you wish to stand fast before the tsunami of inevitability, be my guest, but fulsome as an exquisite insult has been consigned to the dustbin of history. Some commentators recommend that because of the word’s ambiguity, it’s best to avoid its use altogether. If you insist, make sure the context is clear.

6. Ironic

The impact of ironic has been diluted because many people use it to mean “coincidental,” when its traditional definition is “counter to expectations or what is appropriate.”

7. Literally

Some folks get exercised when this term is used in place of its antonym, figuratively. However, in a hyperbolic sense, that meaning is justified. Unfortunately, that sense is literally overused.

8. Notorious

This term is occasionally used in a neutral sense, but that’s not an error, but notorious literally means “known.” However, its dominant connotation is that the fame is a result of infamy.

9. Peruse

This victim of definition reversal literally means “to use thoroughly,” and its first sense is that of careful steady or attentive reading. However, many writers (including me) have employed it as a synonym for scan—enough writers, as a matter of fact, that its second sense is “to look over or through in a casual or cursory manner.”

Unfortunately, these mirror meanings mean that if you use the word, I advise you to support it with context that clarifies the intended sense.

10. Plethora

Plethora originally referred to an excess of something, but that usage is rare now, and more often the sense is simply of abundance. The medical meaning of swelling caused by an excess of blood is all but unknown.

A version of this post first appeared on DailyWritingTips.com.

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