An article in Mental Floss called “25 Words That Don’t Mean What You Think They Do” attempts to educate readers on the One True Meaning™ of words in a listicle. It’s written by Paul Anthony Jones, who runs the Haggard Hawks account on Twitter and has written several books on language. I like Haggard Hawks and I enjoyed Jones’s interview on BBC’s Radio 4. That’s what makes this article so puzzling. It takes a prescriptivist stance in the meaning of words, claiming for the most part that what the words in the list originally meant is what they mean now. I find this position wrongheaded and contradictory. Words change meaning, which I’m sure Jones has no problem acknowledging, but to insist that their original meaning (or some former meaning) is the only one that’s correct is like claiming that women shouldn’t have the right to vote because, well… they used to not have the right to vote. Things change, and you either change with them or you will be left out. Language is no different in this regard.
What’s especially strange about this position (and the Mental Floss article) is that the history of English undermines the argument itself. For example, is there a certain date we can look back to when a word’s meaning was “correct”? The word deer originally meant any animal that was hunted. Are we using it wrong when we refer to what everyone knows of as a deer? No. Likewise, the word nice originally meant foolish. Now it means nice. There are scores more words like this in English. So why do some words deserve a place on lists like the one in the Mental Floss article while others do not?
Speaking of undermining the argument, the Mental Floss article references dictionaries which directly undermine the article’s claims. Lexicographers today use corpora (databases of language) to determine the meaning of words. When there are several meanings, dictionaries usually list them in descending order of how frequently each is used. Not every dictionary does this, but Merriam-Webster does and that’s the one that the Mental Floss references. (Macmillan does too)
Let’s take a look at the words in the list and see what’s going on. To be perfectly clear, this article claims that “in the dictionary […] there are plenty of words being misused and misinterpreted”. Dictionaries are written by lexicographers and their first job is to discover what words mean. So this article is basically saying that lexicographers aren’t doing their job. The first salvo made in the article is an attack on the figurative use of literally. It’s not on the listicle (thankfully), so I’m not going to cover it. You can see how the “misuse” of figurative literally has been confirmed to death here and here.
I won’t go through the whole listicle. Some of the entries on it are correct. For example, the first item on the listicle says “barter doesn’t mean haggle”, which it doesn’t, but it’s still unclear who is using barter to mean haggle. The numbers below refer to the numbers from the listicle.
2. Bemused doesn’t mean amused
Strictly speaking, bemused and amused don’t mean the same thing. Although the use of bemused to mean “wryly amused” is so widespread nowadays that it has found its way into the dictionary, bemused actually means “dazed,” “bewildered,” or “addled.”
Here we see the article contradicting itself by linking to a dictionary which defines bemused as “having or showing feelings of wry amusement especially from something that is surprising or perplexing”.
3. Depreciate doesn’t mean “deprecate”
Here the Mental Floss article acknowledges that self-deprecating = self-depreciating, but it links to a site called Grammarist and claims that self-deprecating is 40 times more common than self-depreciating. I couldn’t find out who runs Grammarist and they do not say where they get their figures from. But in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the ratio of self-deprecating to self-depreciating is 512:2. That makes it 256 times more common.
4. Dilemma doesn’t mean quandary
Ugh, why do we have to do this? The writer claims that dilemma must be a choice between only two alternatives because di– means “two”. This is nonsense and MW even says so. The word disperse has the same di– prefix, so must it mean spreading things into only TWO directions? No. Prefixes from other dead languages do not determine today’s meaning of a word. That shit is bananas.
5. Disinterested does not mean “uninterested”
Except sometimes to totally does.
6. Electrocute does not mean “to get an electric shock”
** By the way, the meaning “give an electric shock to” was recorded the year after the original meaning was recorded (source: OED). This word couldn’t even hold on to its meaning for a year. Sad!
9. Flaunt does not mean “flout”
15. Nonplussed does not mean “not bothered”
“Many people use nonplussed to mean ‘unperturbed’ or ‘unaffected’”.
Well, that settles it then. I guess you better update your lexicon or you’re going to be left out of the conversation because the people using nonplussed to mean “not bothered” are not going to get the memo. Unless you already know that nonplussed can be used to mean “not bothered”… Wait, you do? Well, then I guess everything is sorted.
16. Oblivious doesn’t mean “unaware”
Or at least, it didn’t originally.
Aaaaand we’re back to appealing to antiquity, that old etymological fallacy. Now please explain what deer, nice, silly, and A THOUSAND OTHER WORDS mean.
17. Peruse doesn’t mean “browse”
perusing something actually means studying it in great detail.
Technically, peruse originally meant “to use up”, so you’re both wrong. If we’re going to be pedantic, why not go all the way?
As the OED notes, peruse has been used as a “broad synonym for read” since the goddamn 16th Century! (curse word mine, but it’s totally implied by the OED):
“Modern dictionaries and usage guides, perhaps influenced by the word’s earlier history in English, have sometimes claimed that the only ‘correct’ usage is in reference to reading closely or thoroughly (cf. senses 4a, 4b). However, peruse has been a broad synonym for read since the 16th cent., encompassing both careful and cursory reading; Johnson defined and used it as such. The implication of leisureliness, cursoriness, or haste is therefore not a recent development, although it is usually found in less formal contexts and is less frequent in earlier use (see quot. 1589 for an early example). The specific sense of browsing or skimming emerged relatively recently, generally in ironic or humorous inversion of the formal sense of thoroughness.” (OED, peruse)
You should definitely peruse this Mental Floss article and not take in the details.
17. Plethora doesn’t mean “a lot of”
I don’t have any more time for this. Remember when I said that it was unclear who is using barter to mean haggle? Well, that’s one way that language changes. If enough people use barter to mean haggle – and everyone understands what is meant – then barter means haggle. Just like how enough people use(d) literally to be an an intensifier like really and now literally is an intensifier, in addition to its other meanings. Lexicographers are just doing their job by updating the dictionary to include new meanings.
Stop trying to force people into using words the way you think they should be used, especially if you know what people mean when they use those words! Instead, let’s celebrate that we are witnessing language change happen.