10 Words That Don’t Mean What You Think They Do

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There are more than 200,000 words in the English language — words drawn from Germanic roots, from Latin and Greek, and in lesser quantities from more than 350 other tongues. And more words get added every year. (For instance, here are 30 words that didn’t exist 30 years ago.)

Not surprisingly, considering its size and varied origins, English can also be a very confusing language, full of ambiguities and rife with words that are easily confused with one another or mean something other than what we think they mean.

Of course, English — like most languages — is constantly evolving, and the meanings of words can change over time. “Nice” was an insult hundreds of years ago, meaning foolish or insipid. “Awful” once meant awe-inspiring. (These are 36 old words we use today but with new meanings.)

As a more recent example, for most of its life “hopefully” meant “with hope” (“‘Can I go to the park?’ he asked hopefully”). Today, to the dismay of some purists, it is generally accepted to also mean “it is to be hoped” (“Hopefully it won’t rain while we’re at the park”).

Yes, language changes. But communicating successfully with others depends on a shared vocabulary. Even if the meanings of words slowly change, we need to know what they mean when we write or speak them. Here are 10 words that are often misused. Remembering what they really mean will help us to better get our ideas and thoughts across to others.