10 Words That Don't Mean What You Think They Mean

The English language is always evolving, and over time we sometimes collectively change the meaning of a word. Whether this change is the result of a common usage error or has been deemed acceptable by official dictionary writers, it's often surprising to learn the real — or at least the original — meaning of some words.

woman with dictionary woman with dictionary

So are you sure you're using that word correctly? Here are 10 words that might not mean what you think they mean..

1. Bemused

If you think this word means the same thing as a word it rhymes with, you're absolutely right. Unfortunately, most people choose the wrong rhyme. "Bemused" doesn't mean "amused," though it's often used that way by mistake. It actually means "confused." If you have a bemused expression on your face right now, it's because this new information is blowing your mind — not because you think it's hilarious.

2. Decimate

You're probably not totally wrong about what "decimate" means, but the error with this word is a matter of degrees. It does mean to destroy or eliminate something — but not completely. As the prefix "deci-" suggests, it actually means to reduce something by only one tenth. So if your retirement portfolio was decimated by the Great Recession, you actually got off easy, by only losing 10 percent of your money.

3. Disinterested

Ever heard someone say, "I'm not going to watch the Super Bowl. I'm totally disinterested"? They probably mean they don't like football, but what they're actually saying is totally different. "Uninterested" is the word that means you find something boring. "Disinterested," however, means you don't have any stake in the outcome because you're not invested in something. Now if your friend meant they weren't betting on the Super Bowl, "disinterested" would be correct. Unfortunately, most people aren't aware of the distinction.

4. Electrocute

Ever accidentally stick your finger in an electrical outlet and get electrocuted? If that were true, you'd be dead and buried. "Electrocute" means to kill someone with an electric shock (think "execute" to help you remember). If you get a nasty shock from a malfunctioning appliance, you may be a little shocked, but you haven't been electrocuted.

5. Factoid

"Factoid" is a relatively new word in English. It was coined by author Norman Mailer in 1973, and he meant it to refer to tidbits of information that everyone thinks are true, but actually aren't. According to this original use, "factoids" aren't facts at all, but rather fake news that people believe just because they've seen it written somewhere — tabloids in the '70s, Twitter today. The irony is that today people use factoid to mean a fun trivia fact — pretty much the opposite of what Mailer intended.

6. Ironic

Isn't it ironic that people use this word incorrectly all the time? Nope. It's just funny. A lot of people — looking at you, Alanis Morrisette — use "ironic" to mean an interesting coincidence or just something that strikes you as sort of silly. It really means something totally unexpected — a twist you didn’t see coming. It can also refer to saying something unexpected, like a sarcastic "good job" when a waitress drops a tray of glasses. That's probably where the confusion began, since most people find sarcasm kind of funny.

7. Lied

If you think "lied" has two meanings, you're in for a surprise. This is the past tense of only one word, not two, so you could be using it correctly only half the time. If you lied to your mother yesterday, you're not a good person, but you used the word correctly. "Lied" means to have told an untruth in the past. It is not the past tense of "to lie down" — that would be "lay." Lots of people get these conjugations confused, but you should say "I lay down after work yesterday because I was so tired."

8. Literally

It may be tempting to blame this one on Rob Lowe's performance on Parks and Rec, but the reality is that his Chris Traeger character was poking fun at the many people who are confused by the word "literally." "Literally" means something that's real, true or exact. Most people use this word to mean the opposite, though, saying things like "My head literally exploded." If that were true, you'd have a real mess on your hands! This type of usage has become so common that dictionary bigwigs have added the figurative use of "literally" as a correct usage. Go figure.

9. Luxuriant

"Luxuriant" sounds like "luxurious," but it's not quite the same. "Luxuriant" means “abundant," and not necessarily something expensive. You can have a luxuriant lawn that's lush with green grass, but it probably won't feel luxurious if you're the one in charge of all the mowing, fertilizing and weeding.

10. Penultimate

The word "penultimate" means second to last, usually on a list of items. That's because "ultimate" means the last item, not necessarily the best one. Over time, however, people started to use "ultimate" to mean the best or most exciting thing around. While that shift became so common that it's now accepted, it also means that people began to use "penultimate" to mean extra-awesome — which isn't correct at all. The prefix "pen-" means "almost," so using "penultimate" to mean "really great" doesn't even make sense. Alas, the road to changing definitions never did run smooth.

Words of Wisdom

So, did any of these definitions "literally" blow your mind? Since English is the language that probably has more words than any other, there's a lot to keep track of — so you're excused if you get three or four or even 10 of those words mixed up once in a while. Now that you know the difference, you can make sure that your speech and writing are truly top-notch.

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