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

Believe it or not, even native speakers make mistakes when it comes to English, like with these commonly mispronounced words, for example. We’re only human, after all! There are some common words in English that are used improperly or are words that don’t mean what you think they mean.

Here are some of the best examples (and pronunciations!) of words that don’t mean what we think they mean:


What people think it means: to completely destroy something

What it actually means: to reduce something by a tenth

If you look at the word decimate, you can see deci, or ten, in the word. This word comes from when Roman commanders would execute (kill) one out of every ten soldiers to help maintain (keep) discipline (good behavior, focus) and loyalty.


What people think it means: not interested in something or apathetic (neutral)

What it actually means: someone not influenced by personal feelings or concerns

While many think that uninterested and disinterested are essentially (basically, in essence) the same word, they aren’t. If someone is disinterested, they’re able to separate their emotions or feelings from something, instead of being uninterested (simply not finding something interesting).


What people think it means: a small fact, or unimportant trivia

What it actually means: something that sounds credible (factual, true, believable) and is repeated, but has no basis (foundation, reason) in truth

Norman Mailer is the one who coined the phrase, so the definition he provides (gives, writes) is the correct one. Fake news, anyone?


What people think it means: something strongly suggesting (implying, saying) the truth

What it actually means: to derive (to come to, to reach) a conclusion from evidence (fact that show something 100% to be true)

In other words, information can’t infer something, but you can infer something from the information given.


What people think it means: unable to catch on fire

What it actually meanscapable of (able to) being set on fire and burning very quickly

Sometimes words actually mean the complete opposite of what you think they mean. (How is this possible???) Inflammable is one of those cases, and is very important, we think, to know what it means!


What people think it means: a funny coincidence

What it actually means: words or situations that are the opposite of what was expected

Irony is a difficult concept to get sometimes, as it can be based in humor and has a funny twist (connection, perspective) to it. But running into your old college roommate on vacation isn’t ironic, sorry to say, even if you were “just talking about her”. Neither is “rain on your wedding day”-sorry Alanis Morissette.



What people think it means: to feel sick

What it actually means: to make someone feel sick or to fill with disgust (extreme distaste, dislike)

If you’re feeling sick, you’re nauseous. So, “The rocking of the boat made me nauseous,” versus, “The sight of road kill nauseated me.”


What people think it means: to be unconcerned (not care) or unbothered (not worried or concerned) by something

What it actually means: to be so surprised that you don’t know how to react

Like inflammablenonplussed is one of the strange cases where the actual meaning of the word is the complete opposite of what people usually think it means.


What people think it means: to skim something

What it actually means: to read something very thoroughly (very carefully)


Much like nonplussed and inflammable, the real meaning of peruse is the opposite of what people think it means. There really is a difference between skimming and perusing the newspaper! Who would have thought?


What people think it means: when it feels as if you’re being tortured (put into a lot of pain by someone else)

What it actually means: full of twists and turns

The mistake with tortuous may come down to a simple misreading: Most people add an ‘r’ in tortuous where there isn’t one. Read that again…the word is not tortuRous!

A book or movie may be tortuous if there are a lot of twists and surprises, or it may be torturous if it’s really boring!

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Do you know of any other words that don’t mean what you think they mean? Or have you heard someone use a word incorrectly? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

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Looking for grammar? Try Tricky Adjectives and Adverbs, when to use Which and ThatOrder of AdjectivesIts vs It’s, and Present Continuous tense!

Erin Duffin lives in Hamburg, is an English teacher, blogger, yoga instructor, and is not guilty of mistakingly using any of these words…no siree! 🙂  But was surprised by other words that don’t mean what you think they mean..oops!

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