When we see a word we don’t know, we try to break it into pieces to understand it. A lot of our language comes from Latin and Greek, so looking for familiar roots within an unfamiliar word is often a good tactic. We know that “non” means “not,” and “plussed” means…um…okay, we have no idea. Most people’s best guess is something like “not bothered” or “unperturbed.” The word actually means “completely bewildered” or “confused to the point of inaction.”
From the Online Etymology Dictionary: ”to bring to a nonplus, to perplex,” 1590s, from the noun (1580s), properly “state where ‘nothing more’ can be done or said,” from L. non plus ”no more, no further”
2 . Bemused
“Bemused” looks like “amused,” so we can guess that it has a similar meaning, right? Not so much. It actually means the same thing as “nonplussed.” I feel like there’s a joke in there–so many people are confused by words that mean “confused.”
Merriam-Webster caved to popular misuse and included “ to cause to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement” as an alternate meaning, but other dictionaries continue to hold out.
I see this one all the time. The word looks like “enormous,” and many (many!) writers use it to mean “bigness” when they want to sound fancy. However, it actually means “badness.” Further confusion arises when you encounter something like “the enormity of the Holocaust”; is the writer talking about the enormous scale of the tragedy, or the terrible evil perpetrated by the Nazi regime?
“Decimate” literally means “to reduce by 1/10th.” It’s right there in the root–”deci” means “ten.” However, the word is more commonly used to mean something more like “total annihilation.”
Here’s the Online Etymology Dictionary again: c.1600, in reference to the practice of punishing mutinous military units by capital execution of one in every 10, by lot; from Latin decimatus, pp. of decimare (see decimation). Killing one in ten, chosen by lots, from a rebellious city or a mutinous army was a common punishment in classical times. The word has been used (incorrectly, to the irritation of pedants) since 1660s for “destroy a large portion of.” Related: Decimated;decimating.
I love the aside of “incorrectly, to the irritation of pedants.” After all, isn’t that what lists like this are all about?
I fear this may be a losing battle. “Literally” means “actually,” but for some reason, it’s more commonly used to mean “figuratively.”
A Google search brings up this definition:
My problem is that usage #1 and usage #2 are exact opposites. Context clues make a person’s intent clear (it’s doubtful that someone got so mad they literally exploded), but it presses my militant grammarian rage button.
Here’s the Oatmeal, being awesome as usual: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/literally
It means, simply, next to last. For example, Y is the penultimate letter in the alphabet. I’ve seen it used to mean the same thing as “ultimate” or even like, “super-ultimate.” Like many of the words on this list, the person misusing it is, ironically, trying to sound smart.
i.e. means “in other words.”
e.g. means “for example.”
According to Mignon Fogarty of Grammar Girl, this is one of the top five mistakes she encounters when editing. They’re both Latin abbreviations (id est and exampli gratia, respectively), which may account for the confusion. Damn dead languages.
The Oatmeal, again, with a helpful poster: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/ie
According to Merriam-Webster, these words have an interesting history of swapping meanings. “Uninterested” originally meant “impartial.” In the 18th century, it came to mean “not interested,” and “disinterested” took over “impartial or unbiased.” Confused” Welcome to the English language.
Modern usage prefers “uninterested” to mean “unconcerned with the matter at hand” and “disinterested” to mean “free from personal bias.” (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=disinterested&allowed_in_frame=0)
Advertisements abuse this word constantly. They want it to mean “rare” or “unusual.” If something is unique, however, it is completely singular. The only one of its kind in the world. A mass-produced luxury watch, for example, isn’t unique. You also can’t be more unique or very unique; no qualifiers allowed.
Strictly speaking, “hopefully” means “in a hopeful manner.” It’s more often used to mean “I hope that this thing will happen.”
Correct: “Maryann, who had been expecting an important delivery, hopefully answered the doorbell.”
Incorrect: “Hopefully it wouldn’t rain on the day of the picnic.”
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Semantic Drift, or Why We Should All Stop Worrying and Embrace the Change
English is a wonderfully egalitarian language. Spellings and even meanings of words can change over time. When the majority of people use a word incorrectly, the wrong definition can, over time, become the accepted one. The constant misuse of the word slowly erodes its definition, and before you know it, “irony” means “an unfortunate coincidence.” In essence, if enough people are wrong, they start to become right.
Here’s the thing: semantic drift can’t be stopped. Correcting the errors of others, unless you’re being paid to do it, makes you a pedant. And no one likes a pedant. English teachers, editors, and *ahem* grammar bloggers tend to get worked up over the errors of others and what they perceive as the dissolution of the language into Mad Max-style lawlessness. But we’re already beyond the Grammar-dome, folks.
English, unlike the vast majority of languages, has no governing body. There’s even a Klingon Language Institute. Without any sort of committee to oversee its use, English isn’t just a democratic language; it’s downright anarchy. It’s unplanned, organic, acquisitive as a magpie, and in a constant state of flux. Any attempt to fix it, to pin it like a butterfly to a display board, is futile because language is alive.