10 Commonly Misused Words

You Keep Using That Word ... Does it Mean What You Think?

Sometimes it’s simply the sound or spelling of a word that throws us, other times it’s hearing a word repeatedly used in the wrong context. Whatever the reason, it’s easy to get words misfiled in our brain! We’ll help you right your wrongs with some of the most commonly misused words.


The word enervate means to deplete or to weaken, yet it’s often used incorrectly to mean energize. Maybe that’s due to the misleading presence of “ener” at the beginning of the word. If you’re looking for an adjective to describe how juiced-up you feel, try animated or electrified instead. 


Using luxuriant when one means luxurious is understandable. If you’re talking about an impressive head of hair, or a jungle of beautiful carrot tops in your garden, luxuriant works, as it pertains to abundant or lush growth. If you’re talking about Versailles, or feather beds with 1200 thread-count sheets, you want to use luxurious, since that word pertains to comfort and wealth, rather than fertile countryside or glossy locks.


Do you think nonplussed means “unaffected by,” or perhaps “indifferent to?” It actually means a state of being perplexed, confounded or at a loss. Over the years, it’s been used more frequently to mean “unfazed” or “nonchalant,” which are actually antonyms. This is how language evolves, creating new patterns over time through repeated use. What’s “right” today may change tomorrow!


Sometimes proscribe is used as a replacement for prescribe, as in, “proscribing a fix for the unemployment problem.” But proscribe means to banish, forbid or condemn, and was originally used in the 1500s to condemn or punish someone legally by publishing their name and misdeed. Unlike the previous word, nonplussed, this one shows no signs of evolution; just misuse.


If you’re circumventing something, it means you’re avoiding something, sidestepping or getting around it, whether it’s a sensitive topic or a traffic blockade. People often confuse circumvent with circumnavigate, but circumnavigate means physical movement—usually, flying or sailing—around something, in a complete circle.


Of course we’re going to occasionally confuse enormity with enormous! But remember that enormity usually refers to the awfulness of an issue or problem. Its original Early English meaning was “extreme wickedness.” It is not to be used to describe the size of a thing or geographic area (“the enormity of Texas”—nope!), but it does seem to be creeping into the lexicon to mean the enormous impact of an action or deed (perhaps even a kind one).


If you hear someone refer to a “mute point,” try not to chuckle, but gently tell them the word they are looking for is moot, meaning something that is subject to debate or uncertainty. Mute, meaning a person who is speechless—or to muffle the sound of something—has a nice sharp, concrete feel to it, and might come to mind first over the softer sounding moot when one is talking debatable issues.


In today’s journalism landscape, where the job of identifying “fake news” is one we all need to take on, facts are important. Is a small, incidental fact a factoid?  (“The new mayor sported a small butterfly tattoo on her ankle.”)  Or is a factoid “something fictitious or unsubstantiated that is presented as fact?” (“More people attended the inauguration of Donald Trump than any previous inauguration. Period.”) Well, we define factoid as both, so there you go. 


Fulsome has meant plentiful and abundant; excessive and repulsively gross; curvy and fleshy; overdone and insincere; lavish, and wholehearted. Some word gurus suggest that offering “fulsome praise” or commenting on the “fulsome expression” of a performer on stage may not be the wisest move, unless one is very clear about their intended meaning. Using whatever word that next comes to mind might be the safest thing to do.


If you’re feeling a bit of confusion or befuddlement over some of our words here, you could say you are bemused. On the other hand, if you’re mildly entertained, or amused, well, we’re glad you enjoyed it. (And if you are indeed bemused,  just remember knowledge is power, and you have the dictionary at your fingertips!)

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