Fun with Words

Today I’m going to talk about “mismatched” words – words that sound (to some people, anyway) as if they should mean something different from their actual dictionary definitions.

I’m going to start with two words that cause problems for me, and then I’ll go on to a few words that have befuddled people I know.

  1. Pusillanimous
    I always have to look this one up. Somehow it doesn’t seem right that such a long and fancy word means “cowardly” or “timid.”
  2. Nonplussed
    It would help if I knew the meaning of plussed – but there’s no such word, so I’m out of luck. Nonplussed means “surprised” or “unsure.” Lately it’s been taking on the opposite meaning because so many people are as confused as I’ve been. This is a good word to avoid!

Now we’ll go on to words that have created problems for some of my friends:

  1. Penultimate
    One of my friends used to think that penultimate was an emphatic form of ultimate (sort of like “most” and “utmost”). He would talk about the “penultimate outrage,” for example. But the dictionary meaning of penultimate is “second-to-the-last”: “Our song is the penultimate number in the show.”
  2. Strait
    If you think of the Straits of Gibraltar, you’ll find it easy to remember that strait means “narrow” – not “straight”! A straitjacket is a restraint that wraps tightly around a mental patient. A straitlaced person is someone who’s narrow-minded and inflexible.
  3. Notoriety
    Many people confuse notoriety with “noted” and “noteworthy.” But notoriety is actually associated with bad or criminal behavior.

Can you think of any words that seem mismatched? 

Straits of Gibraltar

                                 Straits of Gibraltar

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2 thoughts on “Fun with Words

  1. Jenna

    Fun post! The big one for me, as you know, is bucolic. It just doesn’t look like it should be talking about a lush, verdant countryside. (Do I need to start associating it with broccoli or something?) I think it’s because of the bubonic plague (a bad thing). Penultimate, I agree, often gets interchanged with the “best”…but for both I’ve just trained myself to learn them…

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