8 more words that may not mean what you think they mean

Verbiage, decimate, and epic are among the words that PR Daily readers cited as commonly misused words. Find out why—and which other terms made the cut.


Two weeks ago, inspired by “The Princess Bride,” I wrote about words that don’t mean what you think they mean, such as “poisonous” versus “venomous,” and “imply” versus “infer.”

The response to this post was phenomenal—more than 450 comments were posted. PR Daily readers shared other examples of words that are commonly misused. Others discussed how language evolves, insisting that the meanings of words change because “majority rules.” Apparently, the word “literally” means the same thing as “figuratively” because everyone uses it that way.

In English, there are an estimated 250,000 distinct words. There are also countless nuances to their definitions. We have jobs in PR or corporate communications because we understand these shades of meaning and can use these 250,000 words to create clear and concise messages.

Yes, words do change over time and language does evolve, but so do nuances. So, in the spirit of our ever-evolving, often-confusing, never-boring lexicon, here are more words that may not mean what you think they mean, courtesy of PR Daily readers.

1. Averse

Averse means opposed or having a strong disliking to something. For example: He was averse to the idea of using a new style guide.

Averse is often confused with adverse, which means unfavorable or harmful. Report any adverse effects from the medication to your physician.

2. Bemuse

To be bemused is to be puzzled, bewildered, or confused. I am quite bemused by your inconsistent use of the serial comma. Be careful not to confuse bemuse with amuse.

3. Decimate

Decimate is another word with a meaning that has changed over time. Historically, decimate means to reduce by 10 percent or to kill one of every 10. Here’s an example: In the Roman armies, it was common practice to decimate any group of mutineers.

In modern usage, decimate means to kill, destroy, or remove a large proportion of; to severely reduce or to destroy. The latest round of cuts decimated our advertising budget.

4. Ensure

Ensure—often confused with insure—means to make sure or certain. For instance: You need to ensure there are no errors in the article.

Insure means to take precaution in advance or protect against financial loss. He failed to insure his home against flooding.

5. Epic

This misuse of this word seems to be a pet peeve for PR Daily readers. An epic is an extended narrative poem celebrating the feats of a legendary or traditional hero. It can also be a long film, book, or other work portraying heroic deeds and adventures or covering an extended period of time. For example: The best example of a modern epic is the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian.

As an adjective, epic means heroic or grand in scale or characteristic of an epic. It can also mean impressive or remarkable. This usage seems to give readers the most grief, as in “last night’s party was epic.”

6. Facetious

Facetious means flippant or treating a serious issue with inappropriate humor. I don’t appreciate your facetious attitude about spelling.

Facetious should not be confused with sarcastic, which refers a cutting, ironic remark meant to insult or scorn.

7. Nonplussed

If you are nonplussed, it means you are bewildered or unsure of how to respond. The CEO’s tirade left me completely nonplussed. Nonplussed is often thought to mean calm or relaxed.

8. Verbiage

Verbiage is not a synonym for wording, content, or language. It means an excess of words for the purpose; wordiness or verbosity. For example, Most press release quotes are riddled with irrelevant verbiage.

Readers, care to weigh in on any of these words? Have any others to suggest?

Laura Hale Brockway is a medical writer and editor from Austin, Texas. She is also the author of the writing/editing/random thoughts blog, impertinentremarks.com.

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