Confusing Words

Confusing Words #

Let’s face it - English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant, nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England or French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat. We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig..

English is an organic, evolving and democratic world language because it is so forgiving. Words constantly change their meaning by sloppy misuse or by changing times and needs.

Dr Samuel Johnson attempted to anchor our language by publishing his dictionary in 1755. Even then most lexicographers still use common usage to determine contemporary meanings.

The English language has evolved over more than a thousand years and words have come and gone with many changing their meanings, sometimes opposite to what they originally meant. It is through written literature from Beowolf, Chaucer and Shakespeare we can trace the changes.

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice”
T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Words strain
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still………
T.S. Eliot notes in “Burnt Norton” - Four Quartets:

While everything that needs to be said about the human condition has already been said, not everybody has yet said it. Each generation feels the need to express the human condition in its language.

Dictionary updates consist of more than just newly added terms. They also add new definitions to existing entries, revise outdated definitions, and update other content, such as pronunciations and etymologies. The addition of a word to our dictionary doesn’t mean it’s brand new to the English language (in fact, many have been around for quite a while).

It’s 2024, and the pace of language change is as rapid as it has ever been. Our lexicographers are updating the dictionary more frequently than ever, doing the human-scale work of documenting words across the vast spectrum of the always-evolving English language. And wow, the variety is real.


“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master - - that’s all.” (Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6)

Some of the following words are constantly misused in general communication. While it may be pedantic, there are distinctions, worthwhile preserving. If we lose them, the English language becomes the poorer for it.

Many words sound the same so we mix them up - we all do it.

It’s not “Without further adieu.” It’s “Without further ado.” Ado means fuss. Adieu means goodbye.

It’s not “fulsome praise”. It’s full of praise.

Fulsome first referred to a well formed body, curvy and buxom thus associated with a compliment, giving it a connotation of flattery evolving into meaning insincere flattery, empty platitudes. Fulsome is a word that is constantly misused. It does not mean full or complete. A dictionary definition of fulsome is “unpleasantly and excessively suave or ingratiating in manner or speech”. Other synonyms are cloying and insincere.

“To beg the question” Assume the point you are attempting to find out. Ex: “Have you stopped beating your wife?” Assumes that you beat her in the first place when this is not proven. This is not the same as to

Put (raise or ask) the question”

Leading questions suggest a desired response.

“No one is the suppository of all wisdom.” Those were the grave words of our Prime Minister, tweeted and retweeted so many times since he uttered them in 2013. Repository was surely meant, but went unsaid.

Mr Abbott’s garbled phrase had the ring of Kath and Kim about it.

Mum, I don’t want to be rich,” says Kim in an early episode of the TV series. “I want to be effluent!”

Liquid waste indeed. We all ooze these wonky words and phrases

Scott Morrison:Royal Commission needs to cover the whole gambit (gamut) of the fires”.

Perhaps a Freudian slip: Gambit = act to gain an advantage. Who has ever heard of a government trying to gain political advantage from a Royal Commission?

Michelle Landry: “The whole anals of history”. I believe she meant to say annals, or was it anal retentive?

Michael McCormack: “You always take learnings”. This is actually quite acceptable.

Deviated from original usages: #


  1. (in gambling) an independent party with whom each of those who make a wager deposits the money or counters wagered.
  2. person with an interest or concern in something, especially a business.

Disinterested – impartial, detached or uninvolved.

Uninterested - not interested, unconcerned, indifferent

Thanks to media disinterest, it seems likely the alternative leader of the country will emerge largely unscathed by the Home Affairs scandals he’s currently neck-deep in.

Less - Used for amounts that cannot be counted

Fewer - Used for amounts that can be counted.

We have less money because we have fewer dollars and cents.

We have fewer teachers because of less education.

Arrant - downright, complete, utter

Errant - roving, erring,

Imply - to suggest

Infer - to interpret an implication

National chief correspondent of The Oz Hedley Thomas, wrote to say that: “Crikey has tried hard to paint another false picture of journalism at The Australian by inferring that reporters at The Oz lack independence from Chris Mitchell.”

No. We did so by implying (suggesting) it, not inferring (i.e. interpreting, coming to the belief) it. Quite possibly we did infer it, but that was not the process by which we communicated it. An elementary error which no journalist should commit. Hedley Thomas: Crikey June, 26, 2011.

Ingenious - clever, brilliant inventions,

Ingenuous - open, frank, honest

Inventive - finding new discoveries

Innovative - applying new discoveries in different ways

Moot - debatable, not absolute

Mute - silent, dumb, unable or unwilling to speak

Effect - noun, the result of an action

Affect - verb, the action - to influence.

Artists - creative and imaginative ability to make music, painting, sculptures, stories

Artisans - trained and skilled in a craft – specialised tradesmen.

Discrete - distinct, separate, individual

Discreet - trustworthy, able to keep confidences, judicious, prudent, circumspect

Immoral - wrong. evil

Amoral - neutral, inanimate, neither good or bad

Elicit - to draw out a response, evoke

Illicit - wrong, unlawful

Civility - amiable, pleasant, well mannered

Servility - obedient, cringing, slavish, submissive

Judicial - proper by court official – a judge

Judicious - discreet, sound in judgement, prudent

Allusion - reference to well known identity

Illusion - figment of the imagination

Elevation – metres above sea level on land.

Altitude - metres above sea level in the air.

Caustic – critical, biting, sarcastic as in an alkaline solution.

Vitriolic - critical, biting, sarcastic as in acidic.

In jest you could neutralise a caustic comment with a vitriolic reply.

close in meaning but with important distinctions: #

Some words are so often conflated and frequently confused; constantly misused in general communication. While it may be pedantic, these are worthwhile distinctions. If we lose them, the English language is poorer for it.

Assertive - quiet, forceful, insistent claim to one’s rights or opinions.

Aggressive - forceful attacking offensive claim to rights/opinions.

Reaction - instinctive reflexive or visceral response – knee jerk.

Response - considered, reflective thoughtful or deliberated response.

Reflexive - without consideration - automaton

Reflective - due consideration - thoughtful

Right - entitlement that cannot be taken away - inviolable

Privilege - entitlement granted under trust

Revenge: - a personal subjective, impulsive reaction

Avenge: - a considered response in pursuit of social justice.

Further: - more of

Farther: - measure of distance or length

Familiarity - objective understanding of outward features

Intimacy - subjective intrinsic interaction

Simple - Easy to do or understand

Simplistic - Lack of complexity or sophistication, a distortion of truth

Enormity - of a problem should be the –

Magnitude - of the problem.

Fortunate - lucky, auspicious, favoured by fortune

Fortuitous - accidental, caused by chance

Trouper - member of a group of traveling entertainers - reliable, dependable

Trooper - member of cavalry or mounted police. - courageous

Erotic - arousing sexual intimacy

Pornographic – arousing sexual gratification

Lying - to be prone as in lying on a bed.

Laying - act of laying a carpet or an egg.

Cache - storing computer files, or hiding guns (or even burying food under the snow for the journey back)

Cachet - “style” or “distinction” or “prestige

Censure - official condemnation

Censor - suppressing or banning offensive or content.

Sensor - detection device

Meritorious - deserving reward or praise.

Meretricious - apparently attractive but having no real value.

That - shows comparison

Then - indicates sequence

Councillor - member of a council

Counsellor - analyst, advisor, therapist

Imminent, - it is destined to happen e.g. “the imminent sunset.”

Eminent -can refer to a person of high rank or repute: “an eminent king,” or anything that noticeably pokes out like “an eminent nose.”

Immanent: - it is inherent or inborn.

Will your immanent linguistic eminence shine through when you use these words correctly? Of course, it’s imminent!

Breech. -put pants on it, or gives birth to it in a peculiarly distressing way, or something like that:

Breach - to violate, infringe, contravene.

Public Interest - Information needed by the public to form informed decisions.

Public Curiosity - Titillation, prurient or salacious material to sensationalize news

Gourmand: - a derogatory word for gorging - a glutton.

Gourmet: - a foodie, a connoisseur - to savor good food and wine.

Fanciful: - whimsical, unrealistic, ungrounded

Imaginative: - creative, lateral thinking, creative, visionary, inspired, insightful, inventive, resourceful, ingenious, enterprising;

Weathercocks - spin in direction of public opinion

Signposts - stand true, and tall, and principled.

Pedantry - apply a rule to a letter, rigidly, unquestioningly

Mastery - apply a rule with natural ease, with judgement

Authoritative - highly respected, regarded or revered

Authoritarian - imperious, bossy, bullying

Proposed to - a plea for enduring intimacy - marriage

Propositioned - a request for temporary intimacy - a fling; a tryst; an affair?

Reek - a bad smell, or “to emit” or “to have an air of.”

Wreak - “to inflict” or “to carry out.” used with other words, like rage, revenge, or destruction. To wreak vengeance inflicts punishment on those who hurt you.

Ambivalent - mixed feelings or being unable to make a decision. Indifferent - you don’t have any preferences – apathetic.

grizzly - means “grayish” or “a bit gray.” grisly - “causing terror” or “gruesome” homophone.

Supposably - something is possible Supposedly - assumed true without definitive knowledge.

Amused – to find something funny. Bemused - “to be confused” or “to be lost in thought.” However, bemused can mean “to be mildly amused in a detached way,”

An existential threat.

Hillary Clinton stated that Pakistan’s fragile government is facing an “existential threat”, from Islamic militants who are now operating within a few hours of the capital. Just what is an “existential threat” supposed to be?

Jan Freeman put it so nicely writing in the Boston Globe , “Sartre in a Left Bank cafe or Woody Allen on a psychiatrist’s couch, pondering (or suffering) the struggle to create an authentic self in an indifferent and purposeless universe.”

Clearly that is not what the American Secretary of State has in mind nor is it what former Vice President Dick Cheney meant when he declared of the war on terror that “this is an existential conflict” that must be won.

The philosophy Kierkegaard founded has been reduced by politicians like these. However, as usual in the democratic English language, common usage prevails and existential now can refer to plain existence despite the pedants objections.

The difference between pain and suffering?

Pain is always there, but suffering is a choice.”

Orange is the new Black - er Nietzsche?*

“BSD acquired rather more cache than the family-friendly ‘Masters of the Universe’….”

The word is “cachet” (pronounced “cashay”). Therefore, nothing to do with storing computer files, or hiding guns (or even burying food under the snow for the journey back from the North Pole). It means “style” (in this context). The issue is not correctness per se, it’s about conveying the meaning you want to convey. And I do think you meant something like “style” or “distinction” or “prestige”.

“Criteria” are plural unlike “criterion” (um … that would be “singular”,