5 Words That Don't Mean What You Think They Mean

Inigo Montoya (played by Mandy Patinkin) and Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) in The Princess Bride. (20th Century Fox, 1987)

"You keep using that word," Inigo Montoya says to Vizzini in The Princess Bride. "I do not think it means what you think it means."

The word that Vizzini so frequently misuses in the film is inconceivable. But it's not hard to imagine other words that hold different meanings for different people. Meanings that may even be contradictory—literally so.

Of course, it's not unusual for word meanings to change over time. Some words (such as nice, which once meant "silly" or "ignorant") even reverse their connotations. What's especially intriguing—and often perplexing—is to observe such changes in our own time.

To show you what we mean, let's take a look at five words that may not mean what you think they mean: literally, fulsome, ravel, peruse, and plethora.

Literally Meaningless?

In contrast to figuratively, the adverb literally means "in a literal or strict sense—word for word." But many speakers have a habit of using the word quite unliterally as an intensifier. Take this example from a speech given by former Vice President Joe Biden:

The next president of the United States is going to be delivered to the most significant moment in American history since Franklin Roosevelt. He will have such an incredible opportunity not only to change the direction of America but literally, literally to change the direction of the world.
(Senator Joseph Biden, speaking in Springfield, Illinois, August 23, 2008)

Although most dictionaries recognize the contrary uses of the word, many usage authorities (and SNOOTs) argue that the hyperbolic sense of literally has eroded its literal meaning.

Full of Fulsome

If your boss showers you with "fulsome praise," don't presume that a promotion is in the works. Understood in its traditional sense of "offensively flattering or insincere," fulsome has decidedly negative connotations. But in recent years, fulsome has picked up the more complimentary meaning of "full," "generous," or "abundant." So is one definition more correct or appropriate than the other?

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."

Nevertheless, both senses of the word appear regularly in the pages of the Guardian—and just about everywhere else. Tributes, praise, and apologies are often characterized as "fulsome" without a hint of sarcasm or ill will. But in a book review for The Independent in which Jan Morris described the mistress of Lord Nelson as "grotesque, obese and fulsome," we sense she had in mind the older meaning of the word.

Having it both ways can lead to confusion. When an economics reporter for Time magazine recalls "fulsome times," does he simply mean "a prosperous era" or is he passing judgment on an age of self-indulgent excess? As for the New York Times writer who gushed over a "building with great banks of metal windows, set in a rich screen of glazed terra cotta, particularly fulsome on the second floor," exactly what he meant is anybody's guess.

Unraveling the Meaning of Raveling

If the verb unravel means to unknot, unscramble, or untangle, it's only logical to assume that ravel must mean the opposite—to tangle or complicate. Right?

Well, yes and no. You see, ravel is both an antonym and a synonym for unravel. Derived from the Dutch word for "a loose thread," ravel can mean either to tangle or untangle, to complicate or clarify. That makes ravel an example of a Janus word—a word (like sanction or wear) that has opposite or 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.

Perusing a New Janus Word

Another Janus word is the verb peruse. Since the Middle Ages, peruse has meant to read or examine, usually with great care: perusing a document means studying it carefully.

Then a funny thing happened. Some people starting using peruse as a synonym for "skim" or "scan" or "read quickly"—the opposite of its traditional meaning. Most editors still reject this novel usage, dismissing it (in Henry Fowler's phrase) as a slipshod extension—that is, stretching a word beyond its conventional meanings.

But keep an eye on your dictionary, for as we've seen, this is one of the ways in which language changes. If enough people continue to "stretch" the meaning of peruse, the inverted definition may eventually supplant the traditional one.

A Plethora of Piñatas

In this scene from the 1986 film ¡Three Amigos!, the villainous character El Guapo is talking with Jefe, his right-hand man:

Jefe: I have put many beautiful piñatas in the storeroom, each of them filled with little surprises.
El Guapo: Many piñatas?
Jefe: Oh yes, many!
El Guapo: Would you say I have a plethora of piñatas?
Jefe: A what?
El Guapo: A plethora.
Jefe: Oh yes, you have a plethora.
El Guapo: Jefe, what is a plethora?
Jefe: Why, El Guapo?
El Guapo: Well, you told me I have a plethora. And I just would like to know if you know what a plethora is. I would not like to think that a person would tell someone he has a plethora, and then find out that that person has no idea what it means to have a plethora.
Jefe: Forgive me, El Guapo. I know that I, Jefe, do not have your superior intellect and education. But could it be that once again, you are angry at something else, and are looking to take it out on me?
(Tony Plana and Alfonso Arau as Jefe and El Guapo in ¡Three Amigos!, 1986)

Regardless of his motive, El Guapo asks a fair question: just what is a plethora? As it turns out, this Greek and Latin hand-me-down is an example of a word that has undergone amelioration—that is, an upgrade in meaning from a negative sense to a neutral or favorable connotation. At one time plethora meant an overabundance or unhealthy excess of something (too many piñatas). Now it's commonly used as a non-judgmental synonym for "a large quantity" (a lot of piñatas).

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Nordquist, Richard. "5 Words That Don't Mean What You Think They Mean." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/do-words-mean-what-you-think-1692794. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). 5 Words That Don't Mean What You Think They Mean. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/do-words-mean-what-you-think-1692794 Nordquist, Richard. "5 Words That Don't Mean What You Think They Mean." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/do-words-mean-what-you-think-1692794 (accessed March 24, 2023).