How good is your vocabulary? It might be pretty good, and yet there are almost certainly some words, perhaps many words, that you're using incorrectly because most people do.
To pick out some of the best, I got help from perhaps my favorite word expert in the world, Anu Garg, whose site Wordsmith.org is beloved by logophiles (i.e. word lovers) everywhere, including me. I'd stake my vocabulary against most people's and yet Garg's entertaining A Word a Day emails have taught me many words I didn't know.
I invited Garg to send me his top picks for words most people get wrong, and he sent me a list, along with a caveat: Sometimes if enough a people use a word incorrectly, it makes it into dictionaries and its new, formerly incorrect definition becomes acceptable. "Language grows organically, it doesn't work by diktat," Garg explains. So any of the wrong meanings for these words could someday become correct if dictionaries decide to render them legitimate. But for now, you'll be better off--and look smarter--if you make sure to use these with their correct meanings:
Many people use this to mean amused, or maybe "amused-at-someone-else's-foolishness. But it means neither of those things. "To bemuse is to bewilder or confuse," Garg says. "It has nothing to do with amuse."
You might think this means you aren't interested in something, but that's not right. "Disinterested does not equal uninterested but impartial," Garg explains. Think of it this way: If you're having a debate with a friend or co-worker, you may ask a disinterested third party to weigh in. That person may be deeply interested in the subject, but you're counting on his or her objectivity.
Have you ever accidentally stuck your finger in a live socket and thought that you "electrocuted" yourself? I have, but we were both wrong. "Electrocute equals electricity plus execute," Garg explains. "People use it (incorrectly) in instances where someone is injured by electricity."
You may think this word refers to how enormous something is. That's perfectly logical--simplicity refers to how simple something is, after all. But it's wrong. "Enormity is not enormous, rather outrageousness or seriousness," Garg says. "Though in some contexts, both meanings can apply." For example, he notes, the impact of Tropical Storm Harvey is both very enormous and very serious.
Epicenter is the point above something, not the central point, Garg explains. It's in fact a geological term referring to the point on the earth's surface directly above an earthquake. Because the place that is "at the epicenter of an earthquake" is usually most affected, the term has come to be used as the center of something, in the way you might say that Silicon Valley is the epicenter of the venture capital industry. That usage has gained acceptance but strictly speaking, it's wrong.
A lot of people, including me, are accustomed to using this word to mean "a small fact." But that's not right, Garg says. "Factoid is something fact-like, but not really a fact," he notes. How about an "alternative fact"?
7. Flounder vs. Founder
"Flounder is not founder," Garg says. "To flounder is to move clumsily and to founder is to sink." It's understandably confusing because if you founder in the ocean you might encounter a flounder. But that's a whole other sense of the word.
Most people use this as a synomym for fortunate, but it isn't. "It's a chance occurrence, not necessarily lucky," Garg says. So next time you stub your toe on a rock or a step that you didn't see, you can say: "Oh, how fortuitous!" and you'll be correct.
"People assume it means to remove from office, but it's really a synonym for the word indict," Garg says. It can also be used to refer to bringing an accusation against someone in general. Even when it comes to elected officials, it simply means that someone will be tried, not that they will lose their position. Bill Clinton, for example, was impeached but remained in office.
This is perhaps the most widely misunderstood and hotly debated word in the English language. In the series My So-Called Life, one character, when asked to explain the word "ironic," defines it this way: "When you realize the component of weirdness in a situation." That's how a lot of people use the word, including Alanis Morissette in her song "Ironic." But it's not right.
"Ironic does not mean coincidental," Garg says. "Something ironic has irony. What's irony? That's a whole column in itself, but in short, it's a contradiction between an expression and an action. For example, in a class about safe firearm handling, the instructor accidentally shoots himself."
Matriculate means to enroll, Garg explains. Many people use it to mean graduate, but that's not correct. If you're a college freshman, you're already matriculating.
This is actually a Spanish word meaning moment. "But people use it as the word memento," Garg says. A memento is a keepsake or souvenir, anything that serves to remind you of someone or something. Memento is also the name of two prayers within the Roman Catholic mass--in Latin it means "remember."
Many people use moot to mean that a question is already closed or settled. It really means the opposite. "Moot means open to debate, though it also has a less common sense: having no significance," Garg says. That last meaning, arising from such legal uses as "moot" (that is, hypothetical) court is what seems to have caused the misunderstanding.
People often use this to mean to argue against something or say that it is false, but that's not quite right. "Refute is to prove something false, not to deny," Garg says. So if you want to refute something, you'd better have facts to back you up. Just don't try to use factoids.