19 April 2017

I don't Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

by Robert Lopresti

Not long ago I had an embarrassing moment.  I discovered that the word erstwhile means former.  You may think: well, he's easily embarrassed if that bothers him.  The problem is that I had managed to get to the age of mumbly-mumble thinking it meant alleged.

In one of my stories about Leopold Longshanks, a mystery writer, I said:
Discovering he was using a word he couldn’t define annoyed him, like a carpenter opening his tool box and finding a gadget he didn’t recognize.

Exactly.  I agree with myself completely. I wondered if anyone else had the same experience so I asked my Facebook friends, and got an earful.  Here are some of their examples of words that fooled them.
Toothsome means delicious not toothy.

Nauseous does not mean nauseated.

I used to use venal to mean generally nasty or snide, when it really means to commit crime for money.

For years I thought svelte meant the opposite of what it really means.

 Livid? I always thought it meant flushed red, but it means pale.

Querulous means whiny. I always thought it was about being picky, or a fuddy-duddy.

Enervate. Thought it was kin to energize.

I used to think hoi polloi meant the snooty upper crust. Then I learned some Greek...

How the heck can flammable and inflammable mean the same thing?

Noisome means stinky, not loud.

I used to have a boss that referred to a very crowded space as fulsome.  It means over-the-top flattery.  When she  referred to a fulsome audience I winced.

 Georgette Heyer, in Black Sheep, uses sallow and swarthy interchangeably several times to describe the leading man's complexion (which was swarthy, not sallow).

I tend to mix up chartreuse and puce.

Rather than saying self-deprecating, I'd been using self-depreciating for years. 





Although I knew what it meant I always read hyperbole as hyper bowl and couldn't figure out what that meant.

I was an adult before I realized pinochle was pee-nuckle - a card game I used to play with my father - and not some unknown card game pronounced. pin-o-ch-lee.

I was in college before an English teacher told me that AP-ruh-PO and apropos were the same word.

Rob again now: While I was writing this I got an email from someone who said he was "vehemently in favor of" something or other.  I didn't know that was possible.  I knew vehement meant forceful, emphatic, but I thought it was inherently negative.  I regret my erstwhile (ha!) misunderstanding.

So, confession is good for the soul.  What words have you misunderstood all your life?


  1. OK. Back to school. I think I'll follow Hemingway on this. Faulkner mocked Hemingway for never useing a word someone had to look up in a dictionary. Something like that. Uh, did I use 'mocked' correctly? Damn.

  2. I'm with you on livid- which was such a favorite of Victorian novelists!

  3. O'Neil, no "e'" in "useing." Heh.

  4. "Genre" did me in. I read and understood the word (I was, after all, a voracious reader of genre fiction) but had never said nor heard anyone say the word aloud. During an oral presentation in a high school English class, I pronounced it as "jen-er."

    The teacher corrected me in a most unpleasant manner.

    I dropped out of her class.

    (By the way, does anyone know whatever happened to Bruce Genre?)

  5. I remember thinking calliope was pronounced calley-ope and Penelope was penny-lope. Beatific also didn't mean what I thought it did.

    A good way to remember "nauseous": if you're nauseated you're sick, and if you're nauseous you're making me sick.

  6. I'm with John on calliope and Penelope, and let me add "Yosemite." I never understood the name of the cartoon character Yosemite Sam (Seventy Sam? whatever) in the Bugs Bunny cartoons.

    I had an early teacher who pronounced "bourgeoisie" to rhyme with "New Jersey," and got corrected rather directly when I got to a government class in high school. That same teacher pronounced composer REE-kard Vahg-ner as "Richard Wagner."

    I also remember thinking that Titleist golf balls and clubs had a short "i" in the first of two syllables. I was probably about twelve, so maybe that's understandably Freudian...

    Sin-ek-dosh, instead of Synecdoche. It's like the city in New York State...

    On a completely different note, my Facebook account has been hacked and I've been unable to restore it so far. In the next couple of days, I may be posting here that I've dumped my old page and started a new one. If you get a friend request from me, it's real. If that happens, I'll need someone to invite me to the SS Fb page again, too. Always something, innit?

  7. Funny how this has morphed from spelling to pronunciation.

    Steve, I had a friend in college who, in high school, went on a field trip to New York. The gym coach who was chaperoning them warned them to watch out for the "drunken dialects" on the street. He meant derelicts, of course, but linguistically speaking, he had a point.

  8. I, too was stumped by sallow for a long time.
    Re pronunciation, I remember I was talking about how much I liked Euripedes' "The Bacchae" (yes, seriously), and pronounced it "back-eye" and was told, somewhat snootily (I thought) it was pronounced "bach-ee".

  9. To move away from pronunciation and back into spelling/word-choice dilemmas, here are a few word mix-ups I encounter regularly at the magazine were I'm managing editor:

    Use of "insure" for "ensure."

    Use of "draught" for "drought."

    And here's one that bugs the bejeezus out of me as a reader: The use of "ground" for "floor." For example: Our hero is fighting the bad guy in the living room of the victim's home and then he knocks the bad buy to the ground. I'm immediately thrown out of the story because I don't know how and when they took the fight outside.

  10. One of my favorite word derivation stories, stumbled upon because I spent a lot of my life as a transportation lawyer, involves the word "posh."

    In England during the 19th century wealthy folks took steamers to the Mediterranean to avoid the English winters. Rooms were not air conditioned, and in order to ensure that your room was as comfortable as possible during the southerly trip and the northerly return you wanted morning, not afternoon, sun on each leg of the trip. So the best round trip tickets were marked P.O.S.H., which abbreviated "port out, starboard home," that is, a cabin that would always face east for morning rather than afternoon sun.

  11. Re "livid," I don't get along with my mother very well & it was a lot worse when I was a child. She used to holler at me & say "I'm livid with you" ... her face was bright red.

  12. Thanks for this post, Rob. Among other things, I just discovered that I've always misunderstood "livid." I didn't think it meant "flushed red," though. Like Elizabeth's mother, I thought it meant "enraged."

  13. According to Websters, livid means (1) discolored by bruises; (2) ashen; (3) red; and (4) enraged. I love that it can be pale AND red.
    As a kid, I knew the word unique when I heard it, but I didn't recognize it when I read it, pronouncing it un-q, which didn't go over well with my fifth-grade teacher.

  14. Bobby, I always thought livid meant purplish. For example, medical examiners check for lividity. They know if lividity occurs other than the lowest part of the body, the body has been moved.

  15. Velma, sounds like you've been binge-watching those CSI episodes again!


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