50 Words You Hear Every Day But Don't Know What They Mean

Learn the proper definition of these common words you hear on a regular basis.

circle

No one knows for sure how many words are in the English language, but there are certainly some you hear more often than others. Unless you've memorized the dictionary, however, there are bound to be plenty of everyday words you're still not quite sure about. While we can't cover all the bases, we can at least help you bulk up your vocabulary. Here are 50 common words that you hear all the time but might not be sure of the exact meaning. And for everyday words with surprising origins, check out these 35 Commonly Used Words We Totally Stole From Other Languages.

1
Albeit

confused woman hard words to pronounce
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "The filet mignon was delicious, albeit rather expensive."

What it means: It's just a fancier way of saying "although." And for more words to make you sound smart, learn these 50 Superb Synonyms You Can Use for Everyday Words.

2
Appease

crazy body facts
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "We created miles of new bike lanes to appease cycling activists."

What it means: To placate a group or individual by acquiescing to their requests. Alternatively, "appease" could mean "to satisfy," as in, "A good steak would appease my hunger" (though, frankly, you'll sound a bit pretentious if you use it like this).

3
Arbitrary

messy bookshelf, words you don't understand
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "His bookshelves are organized in a totally arbitrary way."

What it means: Random, erratic, unpredictable, not based on coherent logic whatsoever. And for some more recent linguistic additions, here are 40 Words That Didn't Exist 40 Years Ago.

4
Banal

Why You Yawn
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "Another zombie movie?! These films are so banal."

What it means: Sometimes people use "banal" to mean "boring," but it's a bit more complex than that. "Banal" means that something—say, a movie or a TV show—is so uninspired and derivative that, even if you've never seen it before, you'll feel like you already have.

5
Bemused

female wearing white T-shirt, feeling guilty, confused, making helpless gesture with hands, having Oops expression on her face. Human emotions and feelings, math jokes
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "A bemused expression came over his face when I asked if he knew what 'banal' meant."

What it means: No, this is not a fancy way of saying "amused." It means puzzled, confused, or bewildered. And for words you might be saying wrong, discover 23 Words You Need to Stop Mispronouncing.

6
Benchmark

benchmark measuring, words you don't understand
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "Let's see if she can hit the benchmark score in Tetris!"

What it means: The standard against which others are compared, measured, or evaluated.

7
Candor

Middle aged Black man talking to older white woman during interview, etiquette over 40
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "I love Keanu Reeves because of his off-screen candor. It's refreshing coming from such a popular guy!"

What it means: A deeply genuine, honest nature.

8
Chronic

man with back pain, health questions after 40
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "I suffer from chronic lower back pain."

What it means: In context, you might think "chronic" means severe. But in reality, it means that something—generally, an illness or condition—is recurring. And for words that sound different depending on where you are, check out these 50 Words People Pronounce Differently Across America.

9
Contrived

old man listening to music, things old people say
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "I loved her first album, but her second one just feels so contrived."

What it means: Phony, fake, a total sham. "Contrived" is usually used to describe a piece of creative expression as forced.

10
Colloquial

two women talking
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "These 50 words are commonly heard in colloquial language."

What it means: "Colloquial" refers to language that is used in an ordinary or informal way, rather than formal. For instance, most people call the third Monday in February (an American holiday) by its colloquial term, "Presidents Day," when it's actually still officially titled "Washington's Birthday." ("Colloquial" can also mean, simply, "conversational.") And for more fun content delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

11
Compelled

Man is Swearing Under Oath {Body Language}
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "After going under oath, I'll be compelled to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

What it means: To be forced to do something, whether you want to or not. Often, people misuse this word to mean they're "feeling strongly" about something.

12
Conundrum

Man Thinking {Brain Games}
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "It's 20 miles to the next gas station, but we only have 15 miles left in the tank. This is quite the conundrum we're in!"

What it means: "Conundrum" is used to describe a confusing or difficult problem, question, or riddle—more often than not, it's somewhat of a catch-22.

13
Deferential

student and teacher talking
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "The student showed a deferential attitude toward her teacher."

What it means: "Deferential" is an adjective that means "showing or expressing respect," especially in regards to a superior or elder. However, many people tend to confuse this word with the similar-sounding adjective, "differential," which is used to describe the difference between two or more things. Make sure to check your auto-correct for this one; while the words might look similar, their meanings have nothing in common.

14
Cult

Group of fans
Shutterstock/Jacob Lund

How you've heard it: "Rocky Horror Picture Show is a cult classic."

What it means: As in, a "cult following" or a "cult favorite," the word refers to a movie, book, band, TV show, video game, or other form of media that has a small but extremely passionate fanbase. However, people often misuse it to refer to a project with a massive, passionate fanbase, like Star Wars or Game of Thrones. (Neither are "cult" classics, folks.)

15
Dilemma

woman facing dilemma of two things
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "When she was offered a big promotion at her current company and an entirely new job elsewhere, Kate was faced with quite the dilemma."

What it means: While often incorrectly used to describe any problem, the word's correct usage refers to a difficult problem that offers two (usually both unfavorable) possibilities for an outcome. After all, the prefix "di" literally means "two."

16
Dystopia

a dark alley with no one there, 1984 facts
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "The world is so unfair it makes me feel like we're living in some kind of dystopia."

What it means: A "dystopia" is state or society with great injustice and suffering. Generally, it pops up in futuristic science fiction novels, like The Hunger Games and 1984.

17
Egregious

woman angry using computer
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "Come on, that's an egregious error."

What it means: In today's society, "egregious" means something remarkably bad or shocking. It used to mean the complete opposite—referring to something that was remarkable in a good way. However, people began to use the word ironically so often, its meaning started to take on a negative connotation.

18
Entitled

man driving luxury expensive sports car
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "She's a millennial, so she's very entitled."

What it means: Having, or believing one has, the right to something. People use "entitled" to mean "privileged," and that's accurate. But they also use it when they should just be using the word "titled" to describe the name of a TV series, podcast title, etc.—as in, the seventh Star Wars movie is titled The Force Awakens, not entitled The Force Awakens.

19
Empathetic

Women Hugging and Crying {Benefits of Crying}
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "I'm empathetic to what she's going through."

What it means: "Empathy" and "sympathy" are often conflated, when they are, in fact, different. To "sympathize" means to feel pity or sadness for someone else's experience. But to "empathize" means to understand what they're going through on a personal level.

20
Epitome

the word epitome, woman thinking
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "She was the epitome of elegance and grace."

What it means: "Epitome" is defined as "a typical or ideal example" of a type or quality—which means it is the very best illustration of the word that follows it.

21
Exponential

exponentially growing drawing a line
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "My regard for you is exponentially increasing."

What it means: Lifted from math, "exponential" refers to something that continues to grow at an increasingly rapid rate.

22
Existential

old worried woman sitting on the couch, single people
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "I'm having an existential crisis."

What it means: This simply means "of, relating to, or affirming existence." It's often used by philosophically-minded individuals to indicate they are having an issue with something on a theoretical level.

23
Facetious

woman thinking, every day words
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "I meant that facetiously."

What it means: This means to treat an important issue in a flippant or humorous manner. It's often meant in a negative way, as it indicates the matter requires a greater level of seriousness.

24
Fortuitous

Friends meeting on the street
Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

How you've heard it: "How fortuitous it was for us to meet on the street like that!"

What it means: People often think "fortuitous" means "lucky" because of its similarity to the word "fortune." But it actually just means "by chance," and can be used in a positive or negative way.

25
Hot-Button

man yelling at woman, things you should never say to your spouse
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "That's a hot-button issue."

What it means: This is often used to refer to scenarios that are very politically- or emotionally-charged. A "hot-button issue" tends to inspire strong emotions from either side.

26
Impeach

never say this at work {priorities after 50}
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "Are we going to impeach the president?"

What it means: In theory, "impeach" means to "cast doubt on" someone or something, but we almost always use it in its practical sense: to remove someone from an elected office.

27
Incongruous

puzzle piece that does not fit, every day words
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "The north and south sides of the city are totally incongruous."

What it means: Lacking harmony, or inconsistent with itself.

28
Inflammable

strange christmas traditions
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "You better not put that plastic cup near the open flame. It's highly inflammable."

What it means: Though you may have imagined otherwise, this word doesn't mean "incapable of catching fire." Unlike "bemused" and "amused," this is a case where two words with different prefixes do mean the same thing. Both "flammable" and "inflammable" refer to something that's capable of catching fire.

29
Infamous

man's hands behind back in handcuffs, things not to do when you get pulled over
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "John McEnroe is infamous for his aggressive behavior on the tennis court."

What it means: "Infamous" means notorious, as in well-known for a bad reason. However, people tend to use it the same as they do the word "famous," which is incorrect.

30
Ironic

Closeup of police car lights during day time, things you shouldn't do when you get pulled over
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "How ironic that an off-duty police officer ran someone over with their vehicle."

What it means: Due to Alanis Morissette's 1995 hit song "Ironic," people assume this word describes an unfortunate situation. But it just refers to something that happens in the opposite way of what's expected.

31
Jargon

Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "My doctor used so much medical jargon, I could hardly understand him."

What it means: The words and phrases used by members of a particular profession that are difficult for outsiders to understand. So, if you want to keep your speech simple and accessible, you should avoid jargon at all costs.

32
Literally

Asian man sits up in bed late at night with plate of noodles, health questions after 40
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "In New York City, you can order food literally right to your door at 3 a.m."

What it means: In a literal manner or sense; "precisely" or "exactly" are synonyms. However, people tend to use it to mean "figuratively," when, in fact, that's literally the exact opposite of its meaning.

33
Mitigate

woman with hands on her head thinking or with headache every day words
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "The doctor gave me some painkillers to help mitigate my headache."

What it means: To reduce the force or intensity of something, often in regard to harshness, grief, pain, or risk.

34
Modicum

confused woman thinking, every day words
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "Her story doesn't have even a modicum of truth."

What it means: A small amount.

35
Moot

man arguing with friend or boyfriend, things you should never say to your spouse
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "That's a completely moot point."

What it means: Subject to debate, dispute, or uncertainty, and typically not admitting of a final decision.

36
Myriad

workers at a brainstorming meeting, every day words
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "Jack had a myriad of ideas that he presented at the meeting."

What it means: Countless or extremely high in number.

37
Nauseous

Young Asian woman holding her nose because of a bad smell on pink background - Image
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "I have to take out the trash—that smell is nauseous."

What it means: Nausea-inducing. This is an adjective used to describe something that makes you sick, not a way to say you're feeling sick. If you say you're nauseous, you're making someone else sick—and that's probably not what you mean. The word you're looking for is "nauseated," as in you're about to throw up.

38
Nuance

man thinking at the office {priorities after 50}
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "The reporter really captured the nuance of her story."

What it means: A subtle quality, distinction, or variation.

39
Paradox

confused older woman, every day words
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "It is a paradox that you sometimes need to be cruel to be kind."

What it means: A statement that is seemingly contradictory but in reality, expresses a possible truth; it could also refer to a person, situation, action, or thing that has contradictory qualities.

40
Penchant

american customs offensive in other countries
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "He has a penchant for falling for bad boys."

What it means: A strong tendency toward something, or to display a habitual liking for something.

41
Perfunctory

Woman yawning at laptop
Shutterstock/interstid

How you've heard it: "She finished the assignment in a perfunctory manner."

What it means: If you do something in a perfunctory manner, it means that you are doing so in a routine or mechanical way that lacks a certain enthusiasm or interest in the particular activity. (Hey, at least you get it done on time, though!)

42
Peruse

Upset Man Reading News Sensitive
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "I perused the article you sent me, but I don't agree with that argument about healthcare."

What it means: Sometimes people think "peruse" means "skim." Not so. It actually means to read thoroughly or examine at length.

43
Plethora

woman thinking over the word plethora, every day words
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "The plethora of dating sites out there make it so challenging to know where to begin."

What it means: Though "plethora" is often misused as "a lot of" something in a favorable way, it means "too much" of something… in a non-favorable way.

44
Obsolete

mine in uk south wales, 1984
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "In the state of West Virginia, coal mining has practically become an obsolete industry."

What it means: "Obsolete" is an adjective for something that is no longer current.

45
Oxymoron

Annoyed worker on his phone
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "Some would say that a 'deafening silence' is an oxymoron."

What it means: An "oxymoron" is a combination of contradictory or incongruous (remember that one?) words, such as "cruel kindness" and "heavy lightness."

46
Redundant

Woman Rolling Eyes on Phone, working mom
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "You don't need to call circles 'round.' That's redundant."

What it means: People assume "redundant" means "repetitive," but it actually refers to a word or phrase that doesn't add anything to the conversation—because that point has already been made in another way.

47
Stark

explaining something between coworkers, every day
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "She was quick to point out the stark differences between our careers."

What it means: The most common use of "stark"—outside of Game of Thrones, that is—is simply "sharply delineated." Though it can also mean "barren," "sheer," "robust," or "rigidly conforming."

48
Travesty

man angry at laptop
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "That ruling was a travesty."

What it means: People often use "travesty" and "tragedy" interchangeably, but "travesty" actually means "a debased, distorted, or grossly inferior imitation" of something else.

49
Umami

empty plate with spoon, every day words
Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "This beef stew just hits you with that delicious umami."

What it means: "Umami" is one of the basic tastes (the others are sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness). It's essentially synonymous with the word savory.

50
Vernacular

Shutterstock

How you've heard it: "If you knew the definition of every word on this list, then you must have an impressive grasp on the English vernacular."

What it means: If you're dialed into the lingo of your home country, then it's likely that you are familiar with the country's vernacular, or common tongue.

Filed Under
Best Life
Live smarter, look better,​ and live your life to the absolute fullest.
Get Our Newsletter Every Day!
Enter your email address to get the best tips and advice.
close modal
close modal
GET YOUR FREE GIFT
SUBSCRIBE