50 Words You Hear Every Day But Don’t Know What They Mean
Become a master of the common tongue.
No one knows for sure how many words are in the English language. But according to the prose pros at Merriam-Webster, some linguists peg the exact number at a million, give or take. Since there’s no way you’ll ever memorize seven figure’s worth of dictionary entries, you’re bound to hear a word every now and then that you have zero clue what it means.
And while we can’t cover all of the bases, we can, at the very least, help bulk up your vocabulary a bit. What follows is a study sheet of 50 commonly-heard, less-commonly-understood words—some are often used incorrectly and others just have perplexing definitions. Without further ado, it’s time to learn what the words you hear most often, but don’t quite understand actually mean.
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.”
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,” e.g., “A good steak would appease my hunger” (though, frankly, you’ll sound a bit pretentious if you use it like this).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How you’ve heard it: “What follows is a study sheet of 50 words that 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.”)
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.
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.
How you’ve heard it: “The student showed a deferential attitude toward her teacher.”
What it means: Deferential is an adjective that means “to show or express 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.
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.)
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.”
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.
How you’ve heard it: “C’mon, 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.
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.—e.g., The seventh Star Wars movie is titled The Force Awakens, not entitled The Force Awakens.
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.
How you’ve heard it: “She was the epitome of elegance and grace.”
What it means: Epitome is defined as “a perfect example of a particular quality or type”—which means it is the very best illustration of the adjective that follows it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. For example, whether or not the Trump Administration colluded with Russia would be considered a “hot-button issue” as it tends to inspire strong emotions from either side.
How you’ve heard it: “Are we going to impeach the president?”
What it means: In theory, impeach means to “call into question the integrity or validity” of someone or something, but we almost always use it in its practical sense: to remove someone from an elected office.
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.
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 mean the same thing. Both flammable and inflammable refer to something that’s capable of catching fire.
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.
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.
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.
How you’ve heard it: “In New York City, you can order food literally right to your door at 3:00 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.
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.
How you’ve heard it: “Her story doesn’t have even a modicum of truth.”
What it means: A small amount.
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.
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.
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.
How you’ve heard it: “The reporter really captured the nuance of her story.”
What it means: A subtle quality, distinction, or variation.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
How you’ve heard it: “Laverne Cox is one of the most prominent transgender actresses on television.”
What it means: When you’re transgender, your gender identity differs from the sex that you were assigned at birth.
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.
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. And for more words you may be getting wrong, here are The 25 Most Commonly Misspelled Words in America.
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