People stray from the dictionary definition of words all the time. Myself included! Misusing words doesn’t say much about our intelligence, though! More likely, what these misused words exemplify is how language evolves and adapts over time.
How it’s commonly used: casually read, skim over.
What it actually means: to read thoroughly.
The dictionary definition of peruse is almost the opposite of common usage. Well, that’s ironic! (Or is it?! More on irony later…) You don’t peruse a magazine at the beach, salon or doctor’s office. Rather, to peruse is to carefully consider a piece of writing.
How it’s commonly used: overbearing mature child
What it actually means: unusually mature in development
People often understand precociousness to be a negative trait in a child. Really, though, to be precocious is to be mature for one’s age.
How it’s commonly used: an important event in the past.
What it actually means: an event in the past.
The invention of the printing press and the last time you went to the grocery store are both historical events. The former, however, is the historic event of the pair.
How it’s commonly used: to have a lot of something.
What it actually means: to have an excess/overabundance of something.
This one’s interesting — somewhere along the way, plethora lost its negative connotation. English-language speakers, we sure do love our junk!
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How it’s commonly used: enormous in size.
What it actually means: outrageous or heinous character; atrociousness.
You are awed by a mansion’s enormousness, not enormity. Enormity is reserved for the absolute worst situations and people, like, say, if aliens were colonizing the earth.
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How it’s commonly used: uncommon.
What it actually means: unparalleled.
For something to be unique, it has to be one-of-a-kind. Rough example: a painting is unique; a photograph isn’t.
How it’s commonly used: odd coincidence
What it actually means: “an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected.”
You knew this was coming! Irony is misused because, well, what exactly constitutes irony is confusing. Alanis Morrisette’s song “Ironic” famously contains no actual examples of ironic situations. But, the fact that a song about irony doesn’t actually use accurate examples of irony, that’s ironic!
How it’s commonly used: for emphasis.
What it actually means: In a literal or strict sense.
I swear I hear someone say this every ten seconds. I don’t hear it literally every ten seconds though, because that’s an exaggeration. Another example: ”he’s such a liar, his pants are literally on fire” is also inaccurate. Why? Well, unless you need to dial 911, his pants are figuratively on fire. If it’s not actually happening, it’s not literally happening.
There you have it, 8 commonly misused words. Any more you’d like to add to the list?