The world of words, reading and writing

Words We’re Saying Wrong

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” – Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (And what Alice found there)

Previously I wrote about common phrases and sayings that a lot of people misuse. Well, I now bring to you words that have been bastardised so much most people no longer realise their proper meaning.


Most people describe something fortuitous as being lucky or fortunate. In fact, most people would presume it is derived from ‘fortunate’. Fortuitous is actually derived from the Latin word ‘forte’ meaning ‘by chance’. Thus, fortuitous actually refers to something that has happened by chance or accident.


The misuse of nemesis particularly irks me because Agatha Christie has a book titled Nemesis in which the proper meaning of the word is applied. People nowadays use nemesis as synonymous with enemy. You would undoubtedly have heard people describe someone as their nemesis who they disliked or were in competition with. But the word actually derives from Nemesis, the Greek goddess of justice and retribution. Its formal meaning is a deserved punishment or defeat that is unavoidable. Basically, it stands for retributive justice. It wasn’t until the 20th century that it became associated with a person or event that brings about someone’s downfall. Still, this meaning has little to do with an enemy.


‘Disinterested’ is very often confused with ‘uninterested’. While there is only a matter of different prefixes there is a fairly considerable difference in meaning. Most people would think disinterested to refer to boredom or lack of interest in something. This is actually the meaning of uninterested. Disinterested means impartial or free from bias. So if someone is disinterested, they have no stake in the matter. Thus, they have no interests to protect.


Much like the disinterested/uninterested distinction, people often confuse ‘anxious’ with ‘nervous’. However, ‘nervous’ is usually confined to negative states of worry whereas ‘anxious’ can be a positive or negative mood state. another subtle difference is that ‘anxious’ implies anticipation of something whereas ‘nervous’ does not. For example, if you were nervous about an overseas trip it might be because you are scared of flying or travelling long distances. If you were anxious, however, you might be anxious about flying but you might also be anxious to leave now because you are excited for your trip. This way, anxious can be similar to eager.


Scan is the opposite of skim and yet these days they seem to be used fairly interchangeably. To scan something means to look at it closely and thoroughly. Alternatively, to skim something means to look over it briefly. Looking at how else the words are used shows this difference. If something skims over the water, it does so lightly and rapidly. A computer scanner reads the entire page and records it exactly.


Most people actually seem to know the difference between literally and figuratively, and yet ‘literally’ is still used as a hyperbolic exaggeration. When somebody proclaims it to be “literally raining cats and dogs” they of course don’t mean it to be actually raining cats and dogs. What they mean is ‘figuratively’. Literally is not a synonym for ‘really’ but means ‘in actual sense’.

Although, this meaning is still divergent from the original meaning of ‘word for word’. ‘literally’ used to only apply to instances where something had been copied out word for word or letter for letter. It had no application for non-literary situations. So when we chastise people for not using ‘literally’ to mean ‘actually’ we are also failing to use the word in its original sense. Literally!


I also need a special mention for ‘irregardless’. This must be the most commonly misused word of all time because it is (literally!) not a word! People use ‘irregardless’ to mean ‘regardless’. So why use ‘irregardless’ then? The suffix ‘less’ at the end of ‘regard’ means without regard to, so adding the prefix ‘ir’ to regardless negates the suffix. It’s just one of those bizarre mistakes people make and that somehow catch on.


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