Glosso’s last post was about words that don’t sound like what they actually mean (at least not to me); an example is prosaic, which I think sounds quite poetic, but means – in a general sense – commonplace or unromantic. But that doesn’t mean I use it wrongly; it just sounds wrong. Today we’re looking at ten words that are commonly used to mean the opposite of what they really (or historically) mean. I’m sure you can think of others; please add them in the comments section below.
- Infer: This verb is often used as a synonym of imply — i.e. meaning “to Indicate the truth or existence of (something) by suggestion rather than explicit reference.” But it actually means the opposite of conveying or suggesting something and refers instead to what the person at the other end of the equation is doing: that is, deducing or concluding (something) from evidence and reasoning rather than from explicit statements.
- Peruse: Nowadays, if you’re asked to peruse something, you might assume it won’t take too long, since you only have to glance through it. But you might run out of time, since to peruse means “to read (something), typically in a thorough or careful way.”
- Scan: As for peruse above, the idea of scanning something sounds to many people like a breeze — as though it’s a synonym of skim. But it actually means to thoroughly examine something point by point.
- Plethora: When we’re celebrating an abundance of anything — like a bounty of sweet treats, a wealth of good ideas — we might be tempted to reach for the poetic-sounding plethora. However, plethora — while meaning a large number of items — has negative rather than desirable connotations: historically it refers to an excess of something. In recent and modern usage it’s now widely accepted as a synonym of abundance — but it was excessive until not that long ago.
- Factoid: It sounds like a tiny, mini fact, doesn’t it? But it isn’t: it means fake news — the opposite of something true or factual. Coined by Norman Mailer in 1973, the word actually refers to false information that has been printed so many times it has become accepted as fact.
- Literally: As in “I literally died laughing,” this adverb is so often used to describe a verb that’s not actually happening — as if it’s a synonym of metaphorically. But in reality, it means in a literal, real sense — i.e. the precise opposite of figuratively.
- Eponymous: This adjective is used to describe something that gives its name to something else, not something that receives the name of something else. So Saul Zabar is the eponymous owner of Zabar’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but Zabar’s isn’t the eponymous deli owned by Saul.
- Overestimated or underestimated: This one’s complicated. It depends on whether you’re using cannot or should not with the word in question. If you pick the wrong one, you’re doing the object of your under- or over-estimating a gross injustice — so beware. Why not read Glosso’s earlier post addressing this peculiar mind-bender?
- Nonplussed: Perhaps this word also belongs in the previous post; doesn’t it sound so unperturbed and unruffled? Well, it might sound that way, and it might often be used that way, but what it really means is “so surprised and confused that one is unsure how to react.” Yup: it’s kind of flummoxed.
- Enervated: Again, this word sounds so much like the opposite of what it really means. Doesn’t it sound energized and pumped up? Well, ironically, it actually means weakened, and lacking in energy and vitality.
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