As Inigo Montoya once famously declared, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
If you think it’s “inconceivable” that you’d ever misuse a word — think again! There are many words that we commonly throw down without realizing we’re using them totally wrong. Before you make another conversational snafu, here is some insight into those words you thought you knew how to use — and what they really mean, or when they should be used.
Musician Alanis Morissette was famously grammar-shamed for her iconic 1990s hit “Ironic,” wherein all of the so-called examples of irony in her song lyrics were actually just unfortunate happenings. Irony refers to being the opposite of what you’d expect. For example, a fire station burning down is an example of situational irony. For the record, there are actually a few different types of irony, too — verbal irony is when you use words in an opposing way to their meaning, like suggesting mid-blizzard that it’s the perfect time to go for a dip in the pool. And dramatic irony is when an audience is aware of something that a character is not, like knowing Hamlet is only pretending to be insane.
Based on the Greek word murias, meaning 10,000, myriad is both a noun and an adjective that refers to “many things.” While most of us know the meaning of myriad, funnily enough, almost no one uses it properly. Chances are when you think of myriad, you'd use it in a sentence by suggesting you have “a myriad of candidates” for a job posting or that you were admiring “the myriad of dining options” near your hotel. Here's the thing: You can drop those add-ons. Myriad gets the job done all on its own. You can say “myriad candidates” and “myriad dining options,” saving yourself a few precious syllables while also using the word the way it was always intended. You're welcome!
If you’ve ever said something is a “moot point,” you’re probably suggesting that something is insignificant or irrelevant. The original definition of moot, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), was “a meeting, an assembly of people, esp. one for judicial or legislative purposes.” This definition has since evolved to mean two downright opposing things on either side of the Atlantic. Stateside, a moot point simply refers to something not worth debating. But if you use the same word overseas, it refers to things that are open to argument, debatable, or uncertain. To further complicate things, the original judicial ties of the word “moot” live on, as U.S. law students take part in “moot court,” AKA a simulation court. While the North American definition of moot is also recognized by the OED, you may want to avoid using the word if you’re taking a message global.
Did you know there’s more than one type of fame? Many people believe that “infamous” means you’re incredibly famous. The word actually means being famous — for the wrong reasons. That’s why you’ll often hear "infamous" tagged onto names of notorious criminals or villains. Celebrities can indeed also be infamous, but the label should only be applied once they’ve had a big scandal break out that dims their star wattage.
After a visit to the bookstore or library, you might tell someone that you “perused the selection.” Same goes for a menu, newspaper, contract — you name it. Most of us use this word to describe skimming, scanning, or browsing casually. The OED has news for you: "Peruse" means to “read something, typically in a thorough or careful way” or to “examine carefully or at length.” If you pick up a book and glance at the description, that’s a skim. If you pick it up, read the blurbs, the author’s name, the description, and take in the cover image, congrats — you can now say you’ve perused!
Photo credit: Volodymyr Hryshchenko/ Unsplash