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We have all probably misunderstood words and then used them in the wrong context from time to time, so a little update might come in handy. This infographic from Grammar called

10 Commonly Misunderstood Words In English

might surprise you. There are a lot of people out there who use “your” and “you’re” incorrectly, but that particular error can be easily corrected if you just think about it logically. But when it comes to the meaning of a word, it can sometimes look like it means something other than what it really does.

10 Commonly Misunderstood Words In English - INFOGRAPHIC

Main Article: http://www.bitrebels.com/lifestyle/10-commonly-misunderstood-words/

Yet one ELU user has commented, "We tend toward descriptivism rather than prescriptivism: a word's definition is based on how native speakers use it. This list is somewhat erroneous in that regard." So, at what point should the editorial board of a dictionary "give in," and list a new meaning of a word, based on its widespread misuse by the culture at large? Put another way, are these words truly misunderstood? Or would it be more accurate to say that whoever put this list together misunderstands these words, in that the meanings in red are (or should be) acceptable uses?

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1. If you don't have a question, don't post a question. You are allowed to post a question and answer it yourself. 2. We tend toward descriptivism rather than prescriptivism: a word's definition is based on how native speakers use it. This list is somewhat erroneous in that regard. –  Matt Эллен Apr 23 '13 at 7:45
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@Matt: but does that make the list "erroneous"? (We could turn this into a rather interesting question by addressing that issue; that is, at what point should a dictionary bend, and allow the common "misuse" of a word to become an officially accepted definition?) It's ironic – you've literally inspired me to make an edit. :^) –  J.R. Apr 23 '13 at 8:23
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@J.R. Yes, in parts. Literally is literally used to mean figuratively. Plethora has been used a plethora of times to mean lots. If the list were called something else, like "what words used to mean but people don't use them like that as much any more" that would be a different thing all together :D. I encourage your editing! –  Matt Эллен Apr 23 '13 at 8:27
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@Matt: I've made my edit; perhaps you can now post your thoughts as an answer. –  J.R. Apr 23 '13 at 8:28
    
@J.R. hmmm. I feel like I might just be rehashing this answer. I'll see if I come up with something better, later. –  Matt Эллен Apr 23 '13 at 9:14

2 Answers 2

According to Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003), the verb doubt originally meant "fear," as Jonathan Swift uses it here:

My master added, "that he was daily pressed by the Houyhnhnms of the neighbourhood to have the assembly's exhortation executed, which he could not put off much longer. He doubted it would be impossible for me to swim to another country; and therefore wished I would contrive some sort of vehicle, resembling those I had described to him, that might carry me on the sea; in which work I should have the assistance of his own servants, as well as those of his neighbours."

So why doesn't anyone include doubt on lists of "Commonly Misunderstood Words in English"? The answer, rather obviously, is that at some point people gave in and accepted a different meaning of the word as correct—and that meaning eventually rendered the older meaning archaic. The same process happens today, but now dictionaries track such movements of the language.

Of course, there is a transition period when an older meaning that appears to be losing out to a newer meaning hasn't entirely fallen out of use. That seems to be the case with, for example, nauseous, which originally meant "nauseating" but which now shows up far more often in situations where the author or speaker means "afflicted with nausea." The absence of nauseous from this "10 Commonly Misunderstood Words in English" list leads me to wonder whether its newer meaning hasn't triumphed to the extent of making it noncontroversial. I imagine that it would have been on most top 10 lists of misunderstood English words 30 years ago.

In any event, the process by which new meanings emerge and old meanings die is natural to language—and uneasiness or displeasure about the process is natural to people who grew up with one understanding of a word but who now see and hear it being used in uncouth new ways. When changes in meaning that have occurred during my lifetime blur or obliterate what I consider useful distinctions, I feel some sadness about the loss; but I find consolation in the reflection that the mutability of language is ultimately a far greater force for improving our ability to express ourselves than for frustrating it.

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Depends on what you mean by 'originally'. The fearful meaning of doubt came from supposedly Old French where the word 'douter' came from 'dubitare' in Latin which meant ... 'to doubt'. –  Mitch Apr 24 '13 at 1:00
    
Hi, Mitch. Merriam-Webster explains the "order of senses" in its definitions as follows: "The order of senses within an entry is historical: the sense known to have been first used in English is entered first." In the entry for "doubt," sense 1a is "FEAR" (sense 1b, also archaic, is "SUSPECT"). By "originally," I simply meant "in its first known historical use in English." I acknowledge that Gulliver's master might merely have suspected (not feared) that Gulliver would be unable to swim to another island; the correct sense depends on how emotionally attached to Gulliver the master was. –  Sven Yargs Apr 24 '13 at 17:53

The first on your list, Enormity, is a particular pet peeve of mine.

However, I'm with your anonomous ELU user on this one. Language is about communication, and we arrive at the "meaning" of words by consensus. If somebody uses word A to mean B, and everybody they are communicating with knows that is what they are doing, then B is what it means in this context. Perhaps it didn't use to, but it does today.

Meanings of words change over time (see Gay), and this is the mechanisim they use.

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...even so, I die a little inside whenever I hear "enormity" used for such a pedestrian meaning as "big". Its original meaning is just so much better. –  T.E.D. Apr 25 '13 at 19:07
    
"Nonplussed" is a bit of an issue for me too. Its old and new meanings are nearly antonyms, so often it is impossible to tell even with context which was meant when it is used. I'd prefer authors avoid that word until its meaning has settled down a bit. In the meantime, I just ignore setences that contain it. –  T.E.D. May 21 '13 at 13:48

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