What some words “really” mean


English speakers are spoiled, having at their fingertips such a large, colorful vocabulary of words drenched in history, complexity, subtlety and nuance. But with their meanings constantly shifting and evolving, as they’re meant to do in a living language, many words are as slippery as fish: impossible to capture in the dictionary editor’s net with any definitive sense or identity, as their meanings twist and turn in the mouths and pens of their many users.

With that being said, it’s their complexities and subtleties — often an inherent part of the words’ very meanings — that are sometimes seen to be ebbing away, making their owners either increasingly confused with or newly synonymous with other similar words. Nuances are lost, definitions become more generalized, distinctions between words become more hazy, and a few words are even turning into contranyms, ie. the opposite of themselves (see Glossophilia’s earlier post on this topic).

Here are 28 words that are going through or have already undergone this transformation. For each word, I’ve listed its “new” meaning and its “real” meaning (as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary). Where it doesn’t appear that the “new use” has yet become standard, I’ve used the label “common meaning”, and I’ve marked with an asterisk those words whose usage shift I think is more common in or unique to American English. Descriptivists, I appreciate, will argue that the new meaning IS the real meaning, and that’s why I’ve avoided using “right” or “wrong” for these tags. However, who’s to say when a word has shifted from its “real” to its “new” definition: when does a “wrong” use become accepted as the “new” definition? We’ll leave that to the dictionary editors to decide, and meanwhile we can choose to either mourn or celebrate the loss of nuance and change in meaning that many of these beautifully expressive words are now experiencing.

By the way: some of the meanings (both “real” and “new”) might surprise you, as they did me.

New meaning: To expect or look forward to
Real meaning: To take up or deal with (a thing), or perform (an action), before another person or agent has had time to act, so as to gain an advantage; to deal with beforehand, forestall (an action).

Common meaning: mildly amused (or confused in an amusing way)
Real meaning: Confused or muddled.

New meaning: feeling an internal compulsion or need (to act)
Real meaning: Constrained, forced, necessitated. (The verb to compel means to urge irresistibly, to constrain, oblige, force.)

New meaning: willing or even enthusiastic permission
Real meaning: Voluntary agreement to or acquiescence in what another proposes or desires; compliance, concurrence, permission.

Common meaning: to excoriate (ie. to upbraid scathingly, decry, revile)
Real meaning: To give forth intermittent or vibratory flashes of light; to shine with a quivering light; to sparkle, glitter, flash.

Common meaning: Belief, credence; credibility
Real meaning: Too great a readiness to believe; inclination to believe on weak or insufficient grounds, credulousness.

New meaning: to inflict great damage or destroy
Real meaning: To kill, destroy, or remove one in every ten of. To destroy or remove a large proportion of; to subject to severe loss, slaughter, or mortality.

New meaning: a very difficult and challenging decision.
Real meaning: A form of argument involving an adversary in the choice of two (or, loosely, more) alternatives, either of which is (or appears) equally unfavourable to him. (The alternatives are commonly spoken of as the ‘horns’ of the dilemma.)

New meaning: not interested (opposite of interested)
Real meaning: Not influenced by interest; impartial, unbiased, unprejudiced; now always, unbiased by personal interest; free from self-seeking
(The New Statesman has a short piece — “Mind your language” — about this word in its current issue, 30 May – 5 June, not published online)

New meaning: (often overwhelming) excess in magnitude; hugeness, vastness
Real meaning: Deviation from moral or legal rectitude. Extreme or monstrous wickedness. A breach of law or morality; a transgression, crime; in later use, a gross and monstrous offence.

* Common meaning: exhibition
Real meaning: One of the objects composing an ‘exhibition’. The collection of articles sent by any one person, firm, country, etc. to an ‘exhibition’.

New meaning: fortunate, lucky
Real meaning: That happens or is produced by fortune or chance; accidental, casual.

New meaning: abundant, generous, full
Real meaning: Offensive to good taste; esp. offending from excess or want of measure or from being ‘over-done’. Now chiefly used in reference to gross or excessive flattery, over-demonstrative affection, or the like.

Common meaning: Incoherent; chaotic
Real meaning: Just begun, incipient; in an initial or early stage; hence elementary, imperfect, undeveloped, immature.

* Common meaning: intention (ie. that which is intended or purposed; a purpose, design)
Real meaning: The act or fact of intending or purposing; intention, purpose (formed in the mind). Formerly also, in more general sense, will, inclination; that which is willed, pleasure, desire. Now chiefly in legal phraseology, and in the expressions with intent to (hurt, etc.) with good ormalicious intent , etc. “In some cases it is not possible to ascertain the writer’s intent.” – Oxford English Dictionary

New meaning: an event that is coincidental or paradoxical
Real meaning: The expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect. A state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what was or might be expected; an outcome cruelly, humorously, or strangely at odds with assumptions or expectations.

New meaning: figuratively
Real meaning: In a literal, exact, or actual sense; not figuratively, allegorically, etc.

New meaning: masterly (ie. in an extremely skillful and accomplished way**)
Real meaning: Having a master’s character or disposition; accustomed to or insisting upon having one’s own way; imperious, wilful, overbearing. Of an action: high-handed, despotic. (**In later use merging with [new meaning above])
**OED usage note: Use in this sense, which seems to have declined somewhat during the 19th cent., has been criticized in usage guides, app. starting with H. W. Fowler Dict. Mod. Eng. Usage (1926) 344.

New meaning: affected with nausea; having an unsettled stomach
Real meaning: causing nausea. In later use: esp. offensive or unpleasant to taste or smell. Of a flavour or smell: nasty, repellent. fig. Loathsome, disgusting, repulsive, offensive.

* Common meaning: not disconcerted; unperturbed, unfazed.
Real meaning: Brought to a nonplus or standstill; at a nonplus; perplexed, confounded.

New meaning: a cure
Real meaning: a remedy, cure, or medicine reputed to cure all diseases

New meaning: to scan, to look over in a cursory or casual manner
Real meaning: To examine in detail; to scrutinize, inspect, survey, oversee; to consider, to take heed of.

New meaning: a large amount or quantity
Real meaning: An unhealthy or damaging plenitude or excess of something; a state of surfeit or glut.

New meaning: to delay, procrastinate
Real meaning: To deviate from straightforwardness; to speak or act in an evasive way; to quibble, equivocate. To behave evasively or indecisively so as to delay action; to procrastinate.

New meaning: shiny, clean, unblemished
Real meaning: Of or relating to the earliest period or state; original, former; primitive, ancient. Of something natural: unspoilt by human interference, untouched; pure. Of a man-made object: spotless, pure in colour; fresh, as good as new; (also) brand new, newly made, unused.

* Common meaning: irony
Real meaning: A sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark; a bitter gibe or taunt. Now usually in generalized sense: Sarcastic language; sarcastic meaning or purpose.

New meaning: the best, ideal, most desirable
Real meaning: Lying beyond all others; forming the final aim or object. Coming at the end of a process, course of action, etc., or as the last in a succession or series; arrived at as a final result or in the last resort. Beyond which no advance can be made by investigation or analysis; forming a limit or final stage in respect of nature or quality; fundamental or elemental.

Common meaning (especially when used in the sense of “it cannot be underestimated”): overestimated
Real meaning: estimated at too low an amount, quantity, number, etc. Rated or ranked too low; undervalued. (See Glossophilia’s earlier post on this)

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One thought on “What some words “really” mean

  1. Brian Barder

    A splendid list. Being an inveterate prescriptionist, I mourn the actual or impending loss of almost all these “real meanings”, and have no difficulty in regarding almost all the new or “common” meanings as simply wrong. How can anyone defend the use of ‘underestimated’ where ‘overestimated’ is obviously meant, or ‘inchoate’ to mean ‘chaotic’ or ‘incoherent’ (based entirely on near-homophones) when it has a completely different and unrelated meaning?

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