Not looking up familiar words (Mistake #6)

It’s easy to assume a word with which you’ve been familiar for years means exactly what you’ve always taken it to mean.

Maybe you first came across the word in a slightly ambiguous context. Maybe nobody has ever corrected you when you’ve used it. Maybe they didn’t know either. Maybe you’ve just not given it much thought.

Most people refer to dictionaries to check spellings or unfamiliar words, but looking up less unusual words can prove a fruitful exercise. Here are some examples of words I often see misused, to illustrate what I mean:

Does not (necessarily) mean: modern
Does mean: of the period or age in question

Does not mean: receive or give an electric shock
Does mean: kill through an electric shock

Does not mean: largeness, massiveness, scale
Does mean: evil, something monstrous, wicked

Does not mean: imply, hint at
Does mean: deduce from evidence

Does not mean: unusual
Does mean: by chance / without choice

Does not mean: deny
Does mean: show to be false / disprove

Consulting – and browsing through – a dictionary can boost your word power. Do it. And let me know what you learn.

Comments 8

  • Good post – thanks for this. I'm also aware of how words carry associations, and gather new ones over time – for me personally as well as in general! It's good to be aware of the fact.

    (Enjoying your blog very much, by the way!)

  • I'm delighted to have found your wonderful blog! I've just signed up as a Writers Bureau student today. Therefore I'll probably be a regular visitor to this blog.


  • Lucy – you're right about words gathering new meaning over time. In fact, when I double checked those I mentioned in the post, some dictionaries appear to at least partly accept the disputed or erroneous use. I don't doubt some will become accepted. The word 'naughty' once meant wicked…

    Annette – good to have you on board.

    Thanks both for your kind words.

  • I love the word 'sophisticated'. Often used in the context of 'posh' or 'high-class', when in fact, the dictionary definition is 'corrupt'.

    I'm enjoying this blog, and I've pointed others towards it.


  • 'Decimated' – it was correctly used during periods of warfare where one in every ten soldiers were killed. Nowadays it is often used to to mean that everything was destroyed.

  • I had no idea about sophisticated! Yes, decimated was another one I'd considered including. My humble pocket dictionary suggests that it's okay used to imply a large proportion was destroyed – but not 'everything'. Thanks, all, for comments.

  • I remember years ago using 'mortified' repeatedly when referring to myself as cross. Nobody ever corrected me and I eventually discovered it means nothing of the sort, as it actually means 'humiliated'. Since then I've lost count of the people who use it to mean really, really angry.

  • Hi Vikki – always nice when an old post is brought back to life by a comment! Have never come across this one, must admit … but I'll listen out for it now!

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