Stop using these 19 common words until you know what they really mean

Mouth tapeKatie Tegtmeyer/Flickr“Reticent” just means shy. It doesn’t mean reluctant.

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.

They’re just words, aren’t they?

Why shouldn’t they take on new meanings as people start to use them incorrectly?

Indeed, “silly” once mean “blessed” and then “pious.” There’s a certain justice in where it’s ended up.

Fundamentalists won’t have it, though. They insist on specific interpretations only.

Ergo, because you’re likely more righteous than I am and still want to climb some virtual, figurative ladder, here are 18 words and 1 phrase (consisting of three words) that don’t mean what many people think they do.

They come courtesy of Harvard linguist Steven Pinker and his book “The Sense Of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide To Writing In The 21st Century.”

I worry when books claim to offer a “Thinking Person’s Guide.” It’s so ineffably elitist. It suggests that some people don’t think, that they function like underintelligent organisms.

Still, you fancy yourself a thinking person, don’t you? So these suggestions are perfect for you. Pinker does explain, “Here is a list of words, which I am prepared to try to dissuade you from using in their nonstandard sense.”

So he’s not a complete meanie.

1. Appraise.

You, as a thinking person, must become frustrated every time you hear someone say they have “appraised the board of the current situation.” This literally means they have “valued the board of the current situation.” Which makes as much sense as most of what is usually said in board meetings. You apprise the board of something. Your pawnbroker appraises a necklace you picked up in a parking lot.

2. Begs The Question.

You know what this doesn’t mean? It doesn’t mean “raises the question.” It simply means “assuming what it should be proving.” For example, when you ask the nice tight-suited man at your local Gucci store, why you should pay more for Gucci products and he says you’ll be getting “Gucci quality,” that just begs the question.

3. Bemused.

It sounds almost the same as “amused,” so some people believe that “bemused” is, perhaps, a squeezing of “being amused.” Or maybe a stronger level of amusement. It isn’t. It’s just the state of being bewildered.

4. Clich.

Americans aren’t too good with French words at the best of times. Just ask them to pronounce — or spell, for that matter — “chaise-longue.” Clich is just a noun. It isn’t an adjective. It’s not risqu. It should be pass.

5. Disinterested.

I’m (not) sure you’re not one of these people, but some believe that this means the same as “uninterested.” Because discombobulated is the same as uncombobulated, I suppose. Save it. It only means fair and balanced like Fox News.

6. Enormity.

You might be enormously disturbed by this one. Enormity does not mean “extreme bigness.” It’s true, says Pinker, that some writers insist that enormity can mean “extremely big evil.” But enormity is always evil, alright? It’s not necessarily big.

7. Enervate.

I’ve made this mistake before. I think I’m going to make it again, just for snits and giggles. Enervate does not mean, has never meant, “getting on nerves” nor “to charge you up.” It actually means to sap or weaken. Let’s face it, though, the word is just too energetic to mean that.

8. Flounder.

“Flounder” and “Founder” are often used interchangeably, unless you’re talking fish or Silicon Valley. The truth is that that floundering simply means to flap about without any useful consequences. It doesn’t mean “sink to the bottom.” Although, I suppose you could flap around without any consequences until you sink to the bottom.

9. Fortuitous.

I’ve sunk to the bottom with this one, too, once or twice. It doesn’t mean “lucky.” It just doesn’t. It means “coincidental.”

10. Fulsome.

You’ve offered fulsome praise before, haven’t you? Perhaps even a fulsome apology. Please admit it. Please then admit that what you’ve offered is “excessively and insincerely complimentary praise.” Or, indeed, “an unctuous apology.” I’d like to offer a fulsome apology to the word “fulsome.”

11. Hone.

You hone in on things, I feel sure of it. At least, you’ve done it once or twice. Which would, in fact, suggest you’ve sharpened in on something. I get what you mean. A fundamentalist would not be happy, however. Please make sure you merely home in on things in the future.

12. Irregardless.

This word doesn’t exist. However, if you’ve invented it, I secretly admire you. For your courage, if not for creating a word that is, um, over-superfluous. There “irrespective” and there’s “regardless.” You may choose from those.

13. Meretricious.

This is one of those tricky words that seems to be about merit. In a way, it is. It lies somewhere along the axis of sleazy to tawdry. It means nauseatingly insincere. Which means it cannot mean “deserving of reward or praise.” Unless, of course, you liked praising the sleazy.

14. Opportunism.

This word is all about taking. It is not about creating. It means taking an opportunity or capitalizing upon it. It does not mean “creating or promoting opportunities.” So when a politician champions economic opportunism, he’s talking nonsense. But you already knew politicians talked nonsense, right? Except for Donald Trump. He’s just opportunistic.

15. Parameter.

You love setting parameters, don’t you? You’ve been in meetings where parameters were set and even drawn. But parameters aren’t borders or limits. They’re merely variables. I know it feels like a downgrade for the word. But look what the Catholic Church did to St. Christopher.

16. Reticent.

This just means shy. It doesn’t mean reluctant. Yes, shy people can be reluctant to do things. On the other hand, they could be reluctant just to do things with you. In fact, though they’re shy, they could be the most daring people of all.

17. Simplistic.

Please tell me you’ve never bought simplistic art. Oh, wait. Here’s some. Never mind. But “simplistic” means “navely or overly simple.” It doesn’t mean: “Gosh, this simplicity is so beautiful that it lifts my heart to the moon.”

18. Tortuous.

Roads can be tortuous, therefore twisty. They can’t be painful. If they were, they’d be torturous. They wouldn’t be tortuous. Is that logic too tortuous for you? In which case, this section must be torturous for you.

19. Urban Legend.

I know you come from New Jersey and think that Bruce Springsteen is your finest urban legend. He isn’t. He’s real. Urban legends are lovely stories told by drunken people playing poker. Stories that are entirely false. Bruce Springsteen is real. I’ve seen him in concert. Chris Christie has written him fan mail. Chris Christie is also real.

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