It's not uncommon for words to change their meaning over the years. That can often be mean using a word that you think means one thing but your listener thinks it means something else.
Here are five words that might not mean what you think they so.
1. Most of us believe that figuratively is the opposite of literally. Literally means in a literal or strict sense. But many speakers today use the word in a quite unliteral way; they use it as an intensifier. "Although most dictionaries recognize the contrary uses of the word, many usage authorities argue that the hyperbolic sense of literally has eroded, well, it's literal meaning."
2. The next word is one that lately is being used more and more these days, although it still isn't used in common conversation. If someone showers you with fulsome praise...it that a good thing? Fulsome, in its traditional sense means "offensively flattering or insincere." In that regard, fulsome has a negative connotation. But in recent years, fulsome has picked up the more complimentary meaning of "full," "generous," or "abundant." So which one is correct? "Guardian Style (2007), the usage guide for writers on England's Guardian newspaper, describes fulsome as "another example of a word that is almost never used correctly." The adjective means "cloying, excessive, disgusting by excess," says editor David Marsh, 'and is not, as some appear to believe, a clever word for full.'" That being said, you'll hear and read it being used both ways...even within the pages of the Guardian. To be absolutely correct, it is suggested that you use the word to mean offensive or insincere flattery.
3. Next up, we'll unravel the meaning of raveling. "As he spoke to the jury, his alibi began unraveling." If the meaning of unraveling is to become untied or untangled, then raveling must mean the opposite, right? The answer is yes. And no. The word ravel is both an antonym (opposite meaning) and a synonym (same meaning) for unravel. What? How can that be? Ravel is derived from the Dutch word for "a loose thread." Ravel can mean either to tangle or untangle, to complicate or clarify. Ravel is considered a Janus word...words that have contradictory meanings. And that probably helps to explain why ravel is so rarely used: you never know if it's coming together or falling apart!
4. Peruse is another example of a Janus word. Since the Middle Ages, the word peruse has meant to read or examine, usually with great care. I can hear you saying, "Irwin, we all know that peruse means to skim over your reading." In fact, you may be perusing this blog right now. But that's the funny thing about peruse. Somewhere along the line, peruse went from its traditional meaning of reading carefully to meaning skimming or scanning. That makes it another example of a Janus word. So while most dictionaries don't yet list peruse with both meanings, if enough people continue to use to mean read quickly or to skim over something, the new inverted definition will be listed along with the more traditional one.
And finally, our last word.
5. Writers like unique words like plethora, for instance. Most non-writers do not. But just in case you want to add this word to your daily vocabulary, you might want to know exactly what is a plethora? It is a Greek and Latin hand-me-down word that undergone an amelioration. Huh? That means it's undergone an "upgrade" in meaning. A kind of word 2.0, if you will. In years past, the word plethora meant overabundance or unhealthy excess of something. Today's more common usage, plethora is used as a non-judgemental synonym for having a large quantity of something; a plethora of apples or, in my case, flies would be a good thing!
That concludes today's English lesson. I hope you found it as interesting as I did. Words are pretty cool little things. I mean, where would humans be without them? You'd probably still drawing pictures on walls instead of having meaningful conversations. And I sure wouldn't be typing this blog!
Please stop back by tomorrow for my weekly life lesson from Dharma Frog. I suspect it'll be something special. Until then, happy wordsmithing.