6 Words That Don’t Mean What You Think They Mean

by Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Two teenage girls talking on cell phones

Whether we like it or not, slang has become a major part of how we communicate.

Like dialects that arise out of various languages, English has developed its own nuances over time. Words that may have meant one thing to your parents or grandparents might mean something completely different to you.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with slang or informal language (except in a formal written work or letter). I use these words all the time, in fact.

My only thought is this:

Why do we change the meaning of words?

Was our language inadequate the way it was, or are these simply errors that have been perpetuated over time?

Here are 6 words I believe we’re using incorrectly, according to their original meanings.

Incredible

  • What we think it means: Amazing; extraordinary
  • How we use it: “These brownies taste incredible!”
  • Its original meaning: Not credible; unbelievable
  • How it should be used: “The witness’s testimony is incredible because he was intoxicated at the time of the accident.”

Can a brownie really be incredible? You tell me.

Great

I’ve heard this one used correctly in the UK, but not so much in America, Canada and Australia.

  • What we think it means: Very good
  • How we use it today: “You seem to be in a great mood.”
  • Its original meaning: Very large; of unusual size; remarkable.
  • How it should be used: “A great flood covered the earth.”

Fantastic

  • What we think it means: Very good
  • How we use it today: “You’re doing a fantastic job today.”
  • Its original meaning: Having to do with fantasy or the imagination
  • How it should be used: “The Hobbit was a fantastic work of fiction.”

Extremely

Maybe you think I’m being picky with this one, but if something isn’t capable of being extreme, then it shouldn’t be modified by the word extremely.

  • What we think it means: Very
  • How we use it today: “She makes an extremely delicious cheesecake.”
  • Its original meaning: To the extreme
  • How it should be used: “It’s been extremely cold this week.”

I feel the example about the cheesecake is incorrect because deliciousness can’t really be extreme. In this instance, I think it would be more correct to just say delicious. Saying very delicious would be redundant.

Terrific

Just looking at the word terrific would be enough to help you guess its origins. Makes you wonder why we changed the meaning.

  • What we think it means: Very good
  • How we use it today: “He’s a terrific sportsman.”
  • Its original meaning: Frightening; terrifying
  • How it should be used: “I just saw a terrific car accident on the highway.”

Awesome

  • What we think it means: Very good
  • How we use it today: “We had an awesome vacation over spring break.”
  • Its original meaning: Inspiring awe
  • How it should be used: “We saw an awesome display of fireworks on New Year’s Eve.”

What Do You Think?

Perhaps you disagree with me on one or all of these words. I’m open to discussion, so please let me know what you think.

Are there other words you feel we’ve changed the meanings of? Do you have a problem with language changing over time, or do you think it’s inevitable?

*Please note, all references on word origin taken from Dictionary.com.

{ 16 comments }

Margaret November 5, 2009 at 4:38 pm

I think that what all these words have in common is that generally the successive "cool" leaders of each generation of teens and college kids adopted each of them (at different times) as an ironic "in" term of approval to show their approval of whatever was important or cool to them at the time, and that their respective parents and other elders would not necessarily interpret the same way. "Awesome" used this way came out of "Valley Girl speak" when my daughter was a teen, and some of these uses date back to my teen years. Of course they couldn't use "cool" anymore, because it was so 60s. "Rad" (for radical) was in back in the 80s. I have no idea what word my grandkids will adopt to express their generation's collective approval 10 years from now!

Suzannah November 5, 2009 at 8:11 pm

Margaret,

You're right about teens changing our language. Who would have ever thought that "sick" and "bad" would be "good" one day? I always laugh when I hear a kid say, "Your skateboard is sick!" or something like that. It just sounds so gross to me.

Thanks for your thoughts on the subject!

PatriciaW November 5, 2009 at 5:28 pm

The beautiful–and terrible–thing about the English language is that it's an ever-changing entity. Words, over time, take on new meanings. That doesn't negate the original meaning, but it certainly might muddy up the general understanding (and screw up kids on standardized tests, assuming the tests get it right).

But this is a thought-provoking post. Thanks!

Suzannah November 5, 2009 at 8:16 pm

Patricia,

You make a good point about standardized tests and assuming the tests get it right. I've taught in classrooms as a substitute where the kids are being taught grammar rules in the wrong way because their teachers don't know how to do it correctly. That's not a slight on the teachers, but it goes to show that what we were taught in school isn't always correct! Teachers and tests aren't infallible, and every country seems to have its own rules, which can make things confusing.

I think you're spot on when you say the new meanings don't negate the original, but they muddy the general understanding.

Thank you!

Georgia November 6, 2009 at 4:59 am

"Awful" is another word that I think has changed a lot in meaning/ usage a lot over the generations. Its original meaning was similar to awesome, as in something inspired you to be full of awe. Now though it only seems to have negative connotations, as in "the hotel room was simply awful."

I'm sure there are many many more but this one in particular I can remember my Mum nitpicking about an awful lot!

Suzannah November 6, 2009 at 6:52 am

Georgia,

You're right, awful is another one. There must be hundreds of them. I found a few other posts on the internet about words that have changed their meanings, but for some reason none of them used the ones I talked about here. I remember seeing 'awful' on one of those.

Kelvin Kao November 6, 2009 at 6:39 am

Hm, maybe it's because we are such positive people that we need lots of different ways of saying "very good". I've heard many of these on Power Rangers. When they defeat a monster, they all take turns (usually there are five of them) shouting out something like "awesome!" Without all these different ways of saying "very good", they would be having a hard time!

At least these are not as bad as "literally". :-)

Suzannah November 6, 2009 at 6:54 am

Kelvin,

Ha ha —literally. That's an annoying one, for sure. Although, I think "literally" is just misunderstood more than it's meaning has changed. Same with "ironic." And I agree with you that those Power Rangers would be quite boring if all they said was "very good!" Thanks!

Ric November 6, 2009 at 11:47 am

Neat! I will certainly stop and think a little more before I speak. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

Suzannah November 6, 2009 at 8:18 pm

Thank you, glad you found it so!

Jeffrey Tang November 6, 2009 at 2:10 pm

I can see how many of these words could have changed over time simply through misuse. Even when the meaning of a word has changed significantly, it's not difficult to make a slantwise logical connection between the before and after.

This being a post about words and writing, I'm going to be a bit of a nazi and point out that "It's original meaning" ought to be "Its original meaning." ;-)

Suzannah November 6, 2009 at 8:20 pm

Ha ha, sorry Jeffrey. I actually copied and pasted all the sub-headers under each section, so I PROMISE I only made that mistake once :) Thanks for drawing it to my attention. Must be pregnancy brain getting to me or something.

Cheers.

Beth L. Gainer November 7, 2009 at 1:20 pm

Hi Suzannah,

I agree that the meaning of many words in the English language have changed over time, but that's the natural course of any living language. If our words never changed meanings, and if there were no additions to our vocabulary, then the language would be dying. I don't really have a problem with the changing meaning of words.

A dramatic example is the word "gay," which initially meant happy. Now that definition is archaic, as it should be.

A living language should change with the times. That being said, I don't think people should use slang in professional settings.

Thank you for a thought-provoking post; I love your blogs.

Suzannah November 7, 2009 at 8:48 pm

Beth,

I'm pretty much of the same opinion as you. It doesn't really bother me that language is changing except if it causes people to be ignorant of the kind of formal language necessary for business or work, or other formal writing.

Thank you for your thoughts!

Jc March 2, 2010 at 11:43 pm

this is all-very good-
guess that’s why French was used in diplomacy and treaties.
Jc

Elmo August 24, 2010 at 11:47 pm

Suzannah, I fear I would irritate any prescriptivist tendencies you have. My friends and I have taken to using any word in the place of an adjective and just relying on context to get the meaning across. Consequently something that is impressive can be ‘weapon’, an attractive girl can be a ‘consummate professional’, general craziness is ‘absolutely pears’ and something that’s unjust is ‘kubricked’ – partly a post-modern attempt to surpass the consensus of meaning, mostly just a way to wind up my best mate’s copy-editor wife.

It’s surprisingly easy to understand each other doing this, even if it does all sound a bit ceramic. ;)

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